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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Gender pay gap: women do not choose to be paid less than men

Care work isn’t going anywhere – and it’s about time we recognised which half of the population is doing it, unpaid.

Is it just me, or does Mansplain The Pay Gap Day get earlier every year? It’s not even November and already men up and down the land are hard at work responding to the latest so-called “research” suggesting that women suffer discrimination when it comes to promotions and pay. 

Poor men. It must be a thankless task, having to do this year in, year out, while women continue to feel hard done to on the basis of entirely misleading statistics. Yes, women may earn an average of 18 per cent less than men. Yes, male managers may be 40 per cent more likely than female managers to be promoted. Yes, the difference in earnings between men and women may balloon once children are born. But let’s be honest, this isn’t about discrimination. It’s all about choice.

Listen, for instance, to Mark Littlewood, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs:

“When people make the decision to go part time, either for familial reasons or to gain a better work-life balance, this can impact further career opportunities but it is a choice made by the individual - men and women alike.”

Women can hardly expect to be earning the same as men if we’re not putting in the same number of hours, can we? As Tory MP Philip Davies has said: “feminist zealots really do want women to have their cake and eat it.” Since we’re far more likely than men to work part-time and/or to take time off to care for others, it makes perfect sense for us to be earning less.

After all, it’s not as though the decisions we make are influenced by anything other than innate individual preferences, arising from deep within our pink, fluffy brains. And it’s not as though the tasks we are doing outside of the traditional workplace have any broader social, cultural or economic value whatsoever.

To listen to the likes of Littlewood and Davies, you’d think that the feminist argument regarding equal pay started and ended with “horrible men are paying us less to do the same jobs because they’re mean”. I mean, I think it’s clear that many of them are doing exactly that, but as others have been saying, repeatedly, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The thing our poor mansplainers tend to miss is that there is a problem in how we are defining work that is economically valuable in the first place. Women will never gain equal pay as long as value is ascribed in accordance with a view of the world which sees men as the default humans.

As Katrine Marçal puts it in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, “in the same way that there is a ‘second sex’, there is a ‘second economy’”:

“The work that is traditionally carried out by men is what counts. It defines the economic world view. Women’s work is ‘the other’. Everything that he doesn’t do but that he is dependent on so he can do what he does.”

By which Marçal means cooking, cleaning, nursing, caring – the domestic tasks which used to be referred to as “housework” before we decided that was sexist. Terms such as “housework” belong to an era when women were forced to do all the domestic tasks by evil men who told them it was their principal role in life. It’s not like that now, at least not as far as our mansplaining economists are concerned. Nowadays when women do all the domestic tasks it’s because they’ve chosen “to gain a better work-life balance.” Honestly. We can’t get enough of those unpaid hours spent in immaculate homes with smiling, clean, obedient children and healthy, Werther’s Original-style elderly relatives. It’s not as though we’re up to our elbows in the same old shit as before. Thanks to the great gods Empowerment and Choice, those turds have been polished out of existence. And it’s not as though reproductive coercion, male violence, class, geographic location, social conditioning or cultural pressures continue to influence our empowered choices in any way whatsoever. We make all our decisions in a vacuum (a Dyson, naturally).

Sadly, I think this is what many men genuinely believe. It’s what they must tell themselves, after all, in order to avoid feeling horribly ashamed at the way in which half the world’s population continues to exploit the bodies and labour of the other half. The gender pay gap is seen as something which has evolved naturally because – as Marçal writes – “the job market is still largely defined by the idea that humans are bodiless, sexless, profit-seeking individuals without family or context”. If women “choose” to behave as though this is not the case, well, that’s their look-out (that the economy as a whole benefits from such behaviour since it means workers/consumers continue to be born and kept alive is just a happy coincidence).

I am not for one moment suggesting that women should therefore be “liberated” to make the same choices as men do. Rather, men should face the same restrictions and be expected to meet the same obligations as women. Care work isn’t going anywhere. There will always be people who are too young, too old or too sick to take care of themselves. Rebranding  this work the “life” side of the great “work-life balance” isn’t fooling anyone.

So I’m sorry, men. Your valiant efforts in mansplaining the gender pay gap have been noted. What a tough job it must be. But next time, why not change a few nappies, wash a few dishes and mop up a few pools of vomit instead? Go on, live a little. You’ve earned it. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.