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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“It feels like a betrayal”: EU citizens react to Jeremy Corbyn’s migration stance

How do Labour-supporting European migrants in the UK feel about their leader wanting to control EU migration?

“This feels a bit different from the man I had campaigned for,” says Eva Blum-Dumontet. “It felt like he was on the side of the group that matters, regardless of whether they were actually going to make him gain voters or not. He was on the side of what seemed right.”

Blum-Dumontet is a 26-year-old EU citizen who has been in the UK for five years. She works as a researcher for a charity and lives in north-east London’s Walthamstow, where she is the local Labour party’s women’s officer.

She joined Labour just before the 2015 general election, and campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership bid that year. She spent one and a half months that summer involved in his campaign, either phone banking at its headquarters at the Unite union building, or at campaign events, every other evening.

“When he suddenly rose out of nowhere, that was a really inspiring moment,” she recalls. “They were really keen on involving people who had recently arrived, which was good.”

“Aside from the EU, I share all of his views”

Blum-Dumontet voted for Corbyn in both of Labour’s leadership elections, and she joined Momentum as soon as it was set up following Corbyn winning the first one in 2015. But she left the group two months ago.

She is one of the roughly three million EU citizens living in the UK today whose fate is precarious following the EU referendum result. And she doesn’t feel Corbyn is sticking up for her interests.

Over the weekend, the Labour leader gave an interview that has upset some Labour-supporting EU migrants like her.

Corbyn reiterated his opposition to staying in the single market – a longstanding left-wing stance against free market dominance. He added that his immigration policy “would be a managed thing on the basis of the work required” rather than free movement, and, in condemning agencies exploiting migrant workers, he said:

“What there wouldn’t be is wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry. You prevent agencies recruiting wholescale workforces like that; you advertise for jobs in the locality first.”

Corbyn also emphasised that Labour would guarantee the rights of EU nationals to stay in Britain – including the right of family reunion – and that there would still be Europeans working here and vice versa. But, for some in his party who hail from Europe, the damage was done.

“I feel like he’s now trying to signal more and more that he’s not on all sides, he’s on the side of people who are just scared of migrants,” says Blum-Dumantet, who will nevertheless stay in the party to try and change the policy. “The idea that he is willing to engage in this whole dog-whistling immigration fear feeling is a bit disturbing.”

She stresses that, “aside from the EU, I share all of his views”, but adds:

“I feel like he’s chosen his socialist utopia – and I don’t mean that as a bad thing; I’m a socialist as well – over the reality of the concrete lives of three million people. For us, this is not about some abstract ideal, it’s about our lives, whether we can get jobs here, whether we can stay here. And for the sake of his ideal, he’s sacrificing that. That does feel like a betrayal.”

***

Other EU migrants who initially supported Corbyn also feel let down. Sabrina Huck, the London representative of Labour’s youth wing Young Labour, moved here from Germany in February 2014.

Having joined the party that year, she voted for Corbyn in the first leadership election, “particularly because of things like being an internationalist, talking about migrant solidarity”.

Huck, 26, who lives in south London and works in public affairs, began to change her mind about him she discovered his Eurosceptic views. “It’s kind of my fault because I didn’t really do the research properly on him, I guess!” she laughs.

“I understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some jobs”

Now, she feels “disappointed” in Corbyn’s comments about “wholesale importation” of workers. “The way he articulates himself – it doesn’t sound like what I wanted to hear from a Labour leader, particularly somebody who’s been a proud internationalist, proud migrant rights campaigner,” she tells me.

“I think the way he was making his point about wages was laying the blame way too much with workers and not with the bosses, basically.”

Huck notes that Corbyn is against the single market because of his socialist view of the EU as a “capitalist club”, rather than concern about borders. But she feels he’s using “the immigration argument” to sound mainstream:

“I feel like he’s using it as an opportunity to further his own ideological goal of leaving the single market by tying that to an argument that goes down well with the Leave-voting public.”

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However, other Labour-leaning EU migrants I speak to do not feel Corbyn’s genuine motive is to bring immigration down – and are more understanding of his comments.

“I appreciate and understand the argument that we have put downward wage pressure on some – particularly blue collar or poorer paid – jobs, that is the nature of mass migration,” says a 29-year-old Czech who works for the government (so wishes not to be named), and has lived here since 2014. She believes his comments were made to “appeal to the hard left and Ukip types”, and has left the Labour party. But she adds:

“I can understand how communities suffering through a decade of stagnant wage growth and austerity are looking for a scapegoat, easily found in the form of migrants – particularly in a country where minimum wage and labour protections are so weak legislatively, and so poorly enforced.”

She also is sceptical that a “mass deportation” of EU migrants from Britain is likely to happen. “The optics are too bad, at a minimum,” she says. “It would look too much like the 1930s. What would the government do? Put us all on boats back to Europe?”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively”

“I think they [Labour] are feeling their way around the issue [of Brexit] and are listening for public sentiment,” says Agnes Pinteaux, a Hungarian-born 48-year-old who moved to Britain in 1998. “But reconciling their hardcore Brexit support, those who just hate immigrants, those who want ‘sovereignty’, and those who want Brexit ditched altogether is going to be impossible.”

“I think the debate about the ethics of free movement of labour is a legitimate one, but it has to be rooted in human rights and dignity,” says Anna Chowrow, a 29-year-old third sector financial manager who moved from Poland to Scotland in 2007, adding:

“I was thrilled when Jeremy Corbyn was first elected Labour leader, and I have admiration for his principled approach. [But] I am in disbelief that these comments – akin to ‘British jobs for British workers’ – were made by him. The dehumanising language of ‘importation’ and ‘destruction’ is beyond disappointing.”

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Finding EU citizens in Britain who are entirely sympathetic to Corbyn’s comments is difficult. Forthcoming defenders of his stance are hard to come by, suggesting that it’s a minority view among Europeans living in Britain. But there are some who continue to back him.

“I like Jeremy Corbyn’s authenticity. He comes across as genuine and honest, and I agree with most of his ideas. Contrary to the majority of politicians, he’s actually not afraid of coming across as a human being,” says Teresa Ellhotka, 24, who moved to the UK from Austria in 2016 and works in PR.

“His ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive”

“I kind of shrugged off those comments and they didn’t bother me massively,” she says of Corbyn’s stance on EU migrants. “My mind about Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t changed drastically as his ideas and visions are, in my opinion, still very progressive and I admire that he is dedicated to change but in a human way, and doesn’t suggest fighting fire with fire – as many other politicians, and people, seem to do.”

Ellhotka admits to being “a little surprised, as I did not expect this stance from him at all”, but feels there has been “so much back-and-forth” on the issue that she’s stopped worrying about what politicians say.

“Nobody seems to know what exactly is going to happen anyway.” The only thing, perhaps, that all politicians – and their voters – can agree on.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.