Miliband’s enemies don’t know what to make of him – the trouble is, neither do his friends

Part of the problem is that even Labour MPs find their boss remote.

The Conservative Party is unsure whether Ed Miliband is ridiculous or dangerous. Tory optimists think the Labour leader’s glamourless style breaches some unwritten prime ministerial admissions code, meaning voters will bar his entry to No 10. They expect the opposition’s lead in opinion polls to vanish once the nation seriously contemplates placing a fragile economy in Ed’s buttery fingers.

Conservative pessimists have more respect. They know that belittling Miliband’s manner doesn’t alter the electoral maths that make him the likeliest bet to be prime minister after 2015. If Labour hangs on to disgruntled Lib Dems, and angry Tories continue to side with Ukip – both plausible scenarios – crucial seats in the Midlands and northern England will be unwinnable for David Cameron. A handful of Conservatives even admit that Miliband has played a weak hand with guile, shoring up the unity of the left while the right is divided.

Tory differences over how seriously to take Miliband are inseparable from the question of how easy it will be to woo voters who are currently sojourning with Nigel Farage. Downing Street strategists expect them to come back to Cameron in droves once they realise that their dalliance risks creating a monstrous lefty prime minister. Casual Ukip supporters are supposed to grasp that the things they want – less immigration, benefit cuts, a referendum on Europe – are available only under a Conservative government. Though braced for a strong Ukip performance in the European parliamentary elections in May, senior Tories are quietly confident that the tide will then recede.

This view presumes that Farage’s supporters make rational choices based on a menu of preferred policies. Some Tories doubt it. In their constituencies, they encounter “Kamikaze Ukip” – people who are so filled with hatred of the political class and Cameron in particular that they might swallow the prospect of a Miliband-led government, which they would expect to fail promptly, if that is the price for provoking a purgative Tory crisis.

Ukip’s organisational backbone is built from former Tory activists. They see the Prime Minister as an arrogant, unprincipled toff who has wrecked the party they once loved and whose electoral punishment is a task of moral urgency. There is sure to be a drift back to the Tories in 2015 but it doesn’t take many stubborn Ukippers – perhaps as little as 6 per cent of voters – to rob the Conservatives of power. The calculation that depresses some Tory backbenchers is that the alliance of people who want Cameron out at all costs, though ideologically disparate, is bigger and more motivated than the coalition of people who want to reward him with another term in office.

If that is true, Labour can be the biggest party in the next parliament by default. Yet opposition MPs are reluctant to celebrate this bounty. There is some disbelief that the catastrophic defeat of 2010 can be overcome in a single term. There is also reluctance to credit Miliband with engineering their positional advantage. It feels unearned. A tiny victory delivered by the perverse interaction of a hard-right insurgency and an obsolescent voting system doesn’t exactly make a social-democratic renaissance.

Then there is Miliband’s public image, the source of so much Tory comfort and something that everyone in Labour knows is a problem but only a tiny number of top advisers are authorised to discuss. The shadow cabinet has had many presentations of polling data but none refers to the leader’s personal ratings.

Insiders say the arrival of Spencer Liver­more, a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown who has returned as an election strategist, has brought more focus to the question of how Miliband’s candidacy might best be sold. The preference so far has been for town hall-style meetings in front of live audiences, where he performs well. It is a device that can be pitched as a break from sterile Westminster convention but it can’t replace the mass reach of TV. The discussion now is about the broadcast formats that work for Miliband – what balance to strike between the heavyweight news shows and daytime sofa slots and how to play televised leader debates. Aides insist that Miliband can confound his critics in that arena, going in as the underdog against the famously glossy Cameron and emerging as the more substantial figure.

Miliband’s team recognises that the public still needs to get to know him better. (Tory pollsters say voters have seen enough and aren’t impressed.) But part of the problem is that even Labour MPs find their boss remote. He is wedded to the Mount Sinai model of leadership – disappearing into the clouds for weeks and emerging with new positions on tablets of stone.

He successfully stamped his authority on the shadow cabinet in last autumn’s reshuffle, leaving none in doubt that he can be ruthless. Yet despite having elevated a cadre of young “Milibandite” protégés, the Labour leader still seems isolated. His party backs him because he can win, yet very few people even in the shadow cabinet really know his mind. They can’t anticipate his instincts or claim to speak on his behalf on a range of issues – welfare, education, crime, immigration, Europe. That means they must stick to a narrow script or stay silent for fear of going off-message, which in turn makes it hard for the public to get a rounded sense of what Labour is all about.

So far Miliband’s inscrutability has served him well. After three years, the Tories still don’t have the measure of him, which is why some of them think he can’t possibly win and others say he can’t lose. It is good for Miliband that his enemies don’t know what to make of him. The problem is that neither do his friends.

Ed Miliband visits Standard Life on November, 11, 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland. 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 08 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The God Gap

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David Osland: “Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance”

The veteran Labour activist on the release of his new pamphlet, How to Select or Reselect Your MP, which lays out the current Labour party rules for reselecting an MP.

Veteran left-wing Labour activist David Osland, a member of the national committee of the Labour Representation Committee and a former news editor of left magazine Tribune, has written a pamphlet intended for Labour members, explaining how the process of selecting Labour MPs works.

Published by Spokesman Books next week (advance copies are available at Nottingham’s Five Leaves bookshop), the short guide, entitled “How to Select or Reselect Your MP”, is entertaining and well-written, and its introduction, which goes into reasoning for selecting a new MP and some strategy, as well as its historical appendix, make it interesting reading even for those who are not members of the Labour party. Although I am a constituency Labour party secretary (writing here in an expressly personal capacity), I am still learning the Party’s complex rulebook; I passed this new guide to a local rules-boffin member, who is an avowed Owen Smith supporter, to evaluate whether its description of procedures is accurate. “It’s actually quite a useful pamphlet,” he said, although he had a few minor quibbles.

Osland, who calls himself a “strong, but not uncritical” Corbyn supporter, carefully admonishes readers not to embark on a campaign of mass deselections, but to get involved and active in their local branches, and to think carefully about Labour’s election fortunes; safe seats might be better candidates for a reselection campaign than Labour marginals. After a weak performance by Owen Smith in last night’s Glasgow debate and a call for Jeremy Corbyn to toughen up against opponents by ex Norwich MP Ian Gibson, an old ally, this pamphlet – named after a 1981 work by ex-Tribune editor Chris Mullin, who would later go on to be a junior minister under Blai – seems incredibly timely.

I spoke to Osland on the telephone yesterday.

Why did you decide to put this pamphlet together now?

I think it’s certainly an idea that’s circulating in the Labour left, after the experience with Corbyn as leader, and the reaction of the right. It’s a debate that people have hinted at; people like Rhea Wolfson have said that we need to be having a conversation about it, and I’d like to kickstart that conversation here.

For me personally it’s been a lifelong fascination – I was politically formed in the early Eighties, when mandatory reselection was Bennite orthodoxy and I’ve never personally altered my belief in that. I accept that the situation has changed, so what the Labour left is calling for at the moment, so I see this as a sensible contribution to the debate.

I wonder why selection and reselection are such an important focus? One could ask, isn’t it better to meet with sitting MPs and see if one can persuade them?

I’m not calling for the “deselect this person, deselect that person” rhetoric that you sometimes see on Twitter; you shouldn’t deselect an MP purely because they disagree with Corbyn, in a fair-minded way, but it’s fair to ask what are guys who are found to be be beating their wives or crossing picket lines doing sitting as our MPs? Where Labour MPs publicly have threatened to leave the party, as some have been doing, perhaps they don’t value their Labour involvement.

So to you it’s very much not a broad tool, but a tool to be used a specific way, such as when an MP has engaged in misconduct?

I think you do have to take it case by case. It would be silly to deselect the lot, as some people argue.

In terms of bringing the party to the left, or reforming party democracy, what role do you think reselection plays?

It’s a basic matter of accountability, isn’t it? People are standing as Labour candidates – they should have the confidence and backing of their constituency parties.

Do you think what it means to be a Labour member has changed since Corbyn?

Of course the Labour party has changed in the past year, as anyone who was around in the Blair, Brown, Miliband era will tell you. It’s a completely transformed party.

Will there be a strong reaction to the release of this pamphlet from Corbyn’s opponents?

Because the main aim is to set out the rules as they stand, I don’t see how there can be – if you want to use the rules, this is how to go about it. I explicitly spelled out that it’s a level playing field – if your Corbyn supporting MP doesn’t meet the expectations of the constituency party, then she or he is just as subject to a challenge.

What do you think of the new spate of suspensions and exclusions of some people who have just joined the party, and of other people, including Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union, who have been around for many years?

It’s clear that the Labour party machinery is playing hardball in this election, right from the start, with the freeze date and in the way they set up the registered supporters scheme, with the £25 buy in – they’re doing everything they can to influence this election unfairly. Whether they will succeed is an open question – they will if they can get away with it.

I’ve been seeing comments on social media from people who seem quite disheartened on the Corbyn side, who feel that there’s a chance that Smith might win through a war of attrition.

Looks like a Corbyn win to me, but the gerrymandering is so extensive that a Smith win isn’t ruled out.

You’ve been in the party for quite a few years, do you think there are echoes of past events, like the push for Bennite candidates and the takeover from Foot by Kinnock?

I was around last time – it was dirty and nasty at times. Despite the narrative being put out by the Labour right that it was all about Militant bully boys and intimidation by the left, my experience as a young Bennite in Tower Hamlets Labour Party, a very old traditional right wing Labour party, the intimidation was going the other way. It was an ugly time – physical threats, people shaping up to each other at meetings. It was nasty. Its nasty in a different way now, in a social media way. Can you compare the two? Some foul things happened in that time – perhaps worse in terms of physical intimidation – but you didn’t have the social media.

There are people who say the Labour Party is poised for a split – here in Plymouth (where we don’t have a Labour MP), I’m seeing comments from both sides that emphasise that after this leadership election we need to unite to fight the Tories. What do you think will happen?

I really hope a split can be avoided, but we’re a long way down the road towards a split. The sheer extent of the bad blood – the fact that the right have been openly talking about it – a number of newspaper articles about them lining up backing from wealthy donors, operating separately as a parliamentary group, then they pretend that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and that they’re not talking about a split. Of course they are. Can we stop the kamikazes from doing what they’re plotting to do? I don’t know, I hope so.

How would we stop them?

We can’t, can we? If they have the financial backing, if they lose this leadership contest, there’s no doubt that some will try. I’m old enough to remember the launch of the SDP, let’s not rule it out happening again.

We’ve talked mostly about the membership. But is Corbynism a strategy to win elections?

With the new electoral registration rules already introduced, the coming boundary changes, and the loss of Scotland thanks to decades of New Labour neglect, it will be uphill struggle for Labour to win in 2020 or whenever the next election is, under any leadership.

I still think Corbyn is Labour’s best chance. Any form of continuity leadership from the past would see the Midlands and north fall to Ukip in the same way Scotland fell to the SNP. Corbyn is actually Labour’s only chance.

Margaret Corvid is a writer, activist and professional dominatrix living in the south west.