Miliband needs to convince his party – and the country – he can win on more than a technicality

If Labour doesn’t think it has earned its electoral advantages, it will surrender them.

Labour’s confidence – what is left of it – rests on a technicality. Britain chooses parliaments, not presidents. Ed Miliband may be fluffing his audition to be prime minister but electoral arithmetic keeps his party within reach of power. The Conservatives can win more votes and still end up with fewer seats. A Ukip surge on polling day would finish David Cameron.

Maybe Miliband will look like a stronger candidate as the obstacles to a Tory victory loom larger. Alternatively, those obstacles will shrink as Miliband’s dwindling authority becomes a crisis of Labour’s self-belief. Judging by the bleak mood in the party ranks on the eve of the annual conference, the latter scenario is likelier.

On the conference fringe, delegates will heap blame for Miliband’s woes on the press. Activists will pray for Ed the martyr, the victim of a tabloid hate campaign more aggressive than those that tormented Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot. Miliband’s allies don’t relish the comparisons but they are exasperated at the caustic coverage.

Their modest consolation is that a summer of punishing headlines has not eliminated Labour’s lead in the opinion polls and the advantage is strongest in marginal constituencies. “A bucket of shit has been thrown at us,” says one Miliband adviser, “and we’re still where we were in May.”

It is true that some newspapers are relentlessly unkind to the Labour leader but newspapers aren’t where most people get their opinions. Complaining about biased reporting is a sign that the party has run out of other excuses. When opinion polls show that voters are unimpressed with Miliband, it is because he has been unimpressive, not because editors have dripped poison in the nation’s ears.

The annual conference is historically when a struggling leader can take back control of the agenda, fire up grass-roots enthusiasm and sell a message to the country that leaves everyone feeling they had rather underestimated him. Except Miliband did all of that last September and then frittered away the goodwill. His “one nation” speech was acclaimed as a game-changer. It was a bit lofty but aides promised the rhetoric would soon be fashioned into an agenda for government. It hasn’t happened. The game changed back.

Miliband’s speech this year is described by friends as “meaty”, meaning it will contain policies. Crucially, they will be things Labour will definitely do if elected, signalling an end to the phase of talking about things the party fantasises about doing today but can’t promise to do tomorrow. That will come as a relief to MPs and activists who complain that cagey holding positions – condemning cuts without pledging to reverse them, for example – are useless on the doorstep.

But Miliband’s task is not to enthuse an auditorium for one afternoon. He needs a plan for capturing voters’ attention and winning their trust over a sustained period. Senior Labour figures know they can get through conference without calamity. It’s the weeks afterwards they worry about. “The test is: are we now going to shift from tactics to strategy?” says a shadow cabinet minister. “The mood is very downbeat, very anxious. But it’s not fatal.”

Signs of economic recovery are ramping up the sense of urgency. The Tories claim their austerity strategy is vindicated and that the opposition has spent three years doom mongering on the wrong side of history. Labour’s rebuttal is that the recovery is late and weak and benefits the wrong people. The focus in Brighton will be on families living precariously on low wages, with no job security and no faith that things are getting better.

Miliband sees the Tories’ declarations of victory over the downturn as economic triumphalism that will alienate the voters. “It’s a mistake we want them to continue to make,” says a senior strategist.

The coalition parties know they are vulnerable on that front. They will start pumping out measures to palliate the squeeze on living standards. The Liberal Democrats’ offer of free school meals to all schoolchildren under seven is just the beginning. George Osborne has already let his deficit- and debt-reduction targets slip beyond 2015 and spelled out cuts to departmental budgets running into the next parliament. In other words, he has probably dished out as much bad news as he needs to share this side of an election. If growth picks up and money flows into the exchequer, the Chancellor can start doling out tax cuts and other vote-wangling goodies.

It still might not be enough to overcome cultural and geographical barriers to a Tory victory. Labour campaigners say Osborne’s cut to the 50p top rate of tax continues to resonate as proof that the Conservatives help their rich friends first. Labour MPs and candidates campaigning in the north, Scotland and the Midlands say hatred of the Tories is enough to overcome reservations about Miliband. “The level of anger is like the 1980s,” says one. “The tribal Labour vote is stronger than the tribal Tory vote.” Meanwhile, the core Labour vote is bolstered by angry ex-Lib Dems who feel betrayed by Nick Clegg, while the core Tory vote flirts with Nigel Farage.

That is an account of how Miliband could be prime minister, not a reason why he should be. There has been little transfer of allegiance between the two big parties. One recent opinion poll found that in a sample of 1,000 people who backed the Tories in 2010, only four said they would now vote Labour. Those numbers describe a failure to win arguments in the country, which has demoralised the opposition. “We’re in with a chance,” says one frontbencher. “I can’t put it more strongly than that.”

The gloom is contagious. If Labour doesn’t think it has earned its electoral advantages, it will surrender them. Miliband desperately needs to persuade his party it can win on more than a technicality because, in most other ways, Labour looks ready to lose.

Ed Miliband speaks at the TUC conference at the Bournemouth International Centre on September 10, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition