Miliband wants to win the next election as a healer, but his best chance is an ugly four-way scrap

When inspiration fails, brute organisational force can still carry Labour over the line.

Lynne is uninspired by Ed Miliband. “He’s not doing much for me,” says the 40-year-old Mancunian, wrinkling her nose as if tasting something unexpectedly spicy. She’s still voting Labour: “My dad would never forgive me otherwise.” The father who polices Lynne’s vote died last year, making it all the more important that his wishes be honoured. “We’re Labour,” she explains. “Always Labour.”

Constituencies such as Wythenshawe and Sale East, where I met Lynne in a high street café, don’t often change hands. As the New Statesman went to press, the seat was expected to be held by Labour in a by-election. There was speculation in Westminster at the start of the campaign that Ukip might snatch the seat, appealing to working-class voters who felt betrayed by the Blair and Brown governments and who hate Tories with ritual passion. On the ground, though, Nigel Farage’s partisan brigade was no match for Miliband’s mechanised infantry.

There was Ukip sympathy on the streets of Wythenshawe but ancestral loyalty and sheer organisation won it for Labour. The local party knew where their voters lived and how to mobilise them. Ukip’s team came to the area without intelligence and had to hunt supporters at random.

In the activist trade, they call it “GOTV” – “get out the vote”. It is unglamorous but effective. In 2010, Labour held more seats than it deserved, given the collapse of the party’s national vote share. It wasn’t hidden affection for Gordon Brown that averted annihilation. It was the machine, getting to the right people in the right streets.

That factor will be even more important in 2015. The Conservatives will outspend Labour. They will have the balance of newspaper backing, skewing the terms of debate on big issues – the economy, immigration, welfare – against Miliband. But the Tories’ campaigning muscles have atrophied in seats that David Cameron needs for a majority. The Conservative leader’s relations with his activists are notoriously poor. Even his allies accept that he is uninterested in the politics of stuffing envelopes and fetching biscuits. The Prime Minister has always had staff for that sort of thing.

Miliband is steeped in the operational mechanics of Labour, both because he loves his party and because events have demanded it. The scandal of a dodgy candidate selection in Falkirk last year bounced him into serious structural reforms. The terms on which trade unions participate in Labour affairs have been rewritten. The plan will be ratified at a special conference on 1 March. At its heart is the ambition to turn ordinary union members from accidental party donors into consenting Labourites.

Miliband’s allies are pleased with the way this has turned out. The risks were that he would be denounced for caving in to union bosses or bankrupting Labour. Neither charge is currently sticking. It can now plausibly be said that the party’s ranks will grow while the Tories shrivel. Crucially, the reforms also open the way for Labour to access data that unions have jealously guarded – names, addresses, phone numbers, emails. That GOTV gold mine is the real prize.

Yet Miliband’s interest in a Labour grass-roots revival pre-dates the Falkirk fiasco. Since 2011, Arnie Graf, a 70-year-old US expert in “community organising”, has been training local Labour parties in pavement politics. Miliband is evangelical about Graf’s work. He imagines it standing alongside his party reforms as proof of a commitment to open, inclusive politics. Not everyone in the party is convinced. Few question the intent. The worry is that, when time is tight and resources scarce, “organising” people of unknown allegiance is no substitute for knocking on the doors of voters who will reliably turn out for Labour.

As the general election comes into view, disputes over campaign priorities are becoming venomous. When Graf’s immigration status was queried on the front page of the Sun recently, the assumption in Labour circles was that it was a “red-on-red” attack, briefed as part of some turf war in Labour’s Westminster HQ at Brewers Green. The building is said to seethe with multiple rivalries, exacerbated by the appointment of Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, as “chair of general election strategy” and Spencer Livermore, a former Downing Street adviser, as “campaign director”. Their authority over the machinery has been declared, say insiders, but their control is not established. “Brewers Green is a shambles,” says one senior party figure. “At least we’re still organised on the ground.”

A persistent cause of anxiety at every level of the party is the absence of a simple story to tell sceptical voters about why Britain needs a Labour government. Miliband’s speeches about structural economic injustice are crystallising into a cogent governing philosophy but for digestibility they don’t rival the Tories’ bite-sized rhetoric: Labour broke it – we’re fixing it.

With each passing month, the prospect of a breakthrough recedes, making the race tighter and Labour’s prospects ever more dependent on Nick Clegg’s failure to woo back his old supporters and Nigel Farage’s ability to poach Tories. It won’t be one general election so much as a bunch of specific elections, each with its own complex four-party dynamic. “It’s going to come down to scrappy, inelegant, dogfighting in every constituency,” predicts one Labour campaign official. “It won’t be poetic.”

That isn’t the battle Miliband wanted. In his ideal campaign, he is the healer, uniting a divided nation. He wants to inspire hope, not just scrape together enough votes from tribal loyalists and Lib Dem defectors to sneak over the threshold of No 10. He doesn’t have much choice. When inspiration fails, brute organisational force can still carry him over the line.
 

Ed Miliband waits in front of his office at Portcullis House for the arrival of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on February 03, 2014. 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 13 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Can we talk about climate change now?

Photo: Getty
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The Republican nightmare shows no sign of ending

The Republican establishment is no closer to identifying the candidate who can stop Trump or Cruz, while Hilary Clinton finds herself in a similar position to Barack Obama eight years ago.

After being cruelly denied by the people of Iowa, we were finally treated to a Donald Trump victory speech in New Hampshire last night. While Trump’s win will come as a “yuge” shock to anyone waking up from a yearlong nap, it was very much in line with more recent expectations. More surprising is John Kasich’s second place finish ahead of the tightly packed trio of Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

Rubio’s underperforming his polling average by about four points at time of writing (with 89 per cent of precincts reporting) – perhaps partly the natural erosion of his post-Iowa bump, perhaps also due to his mauling at the hands of Chris Christie in Saturday night’s debate. Meanwhile Ted Cruz’s 12 per cent compares favourably with past Iowa winners’ New Hampshire performances: Mike Huckabee got 11 per cent in 2008 and Rick Santorum 9 per cent in 2012, but neither came close to winning the nomination.

The result offers little help to those “establishment” Republicans who’d been planning to coalesce around whichever of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich and Marco Rubio emerged from New Hampshire in the best position.

Christie and Carly Fiorina are probably done. Both got less than 2 per cent in Iowa; both finished in single digits in New Hampshire after focusing heavily on the state; both are stuck at the bottom of the national polls, and neither has raised all that much money (relatively speaking). Christie is heading back to New Jersey to “take a deep breath”, “get a change of clothes” and “make a decision” tomorrow.

But who will party elites rally around to stop Trump and Cruz? Kasich, who came second in New Hampshire but is on just 3 per cent nationally? Rubio, who beat expectations in Iowa and is best of the bunch in national polls but disappointed badly tonight after a terrible debate performance? Or Bush, who’s had more than $75 million spent on him by the “Right to Rise” super PAC with just three per cent in Iowa and 11 per cent in New Hampshire to show for it? Nobody has won either party’s nomination in the modern primary era without a top-two finish in New Hampshire – does either Rubio or Bush really seem like the candidate to break that trend?

Jeb does have plenty of money and organisation, and is guaranteed some extra support from one prominent establishment Republican in South Carolina: his brother. George W has recorded an ad for the Jeb-supporting “Right to Rise” PAC, calling his brother “a leader who will keep our country safe”, which is already running on South Carolina TV (and which ran in New Hampshire during the Super Bowl). He will also join his brother on the campaign trail in the run up to the primary. Bush 43 left office very unpopular and remains the most disliked former President, but he is very popular with Republicans. A Bloomberg/Selzer poll in November found that 77 per cent of them have a favourable opinion of him, making him far more popular than any of this year’s candidates. (Jeb calls his brother “the most popular Republican alive”, which is a bit of a stretch. Nancy Reagan? Clint Eastwood?)

Trump leads convincingly from Cruz in the most recent polls in both South Carolina and Nevada, but there haven’t been any polls from either state since the Iowa caucus. Neither state is as friendly territory for “establishment” candidates as New Hampshire: South Carolina’s electorate is much more evangelical, and Nevada’s much more conservative. Newt Gingrich won South Carolina handily in 2012 and Huckabee came a close second in 2008. Cruz and Trump are doing best with evangelicals and very conservative voters this time around. Thanks to the state’s winner-take-all rules, whoever prevails in South Carolina will get the small ego boost of going into Super Tuesday with the most delegates.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders secured a big win over Hillary Clinton (60 per cent to 38 per cent with 90 per cent of precincts reporting). What seemed incredibly unlikely a year ago has been almost certain for the past week or so. As he heads south and west, though, Sanders faces a new challenge: winning over African American voters.

Just two per cent of those who voted in the two Democratic contests so far have been black; in the next ones that number will be a lot higher. (In 2008, it was 15 per cent in Nevada and 55 per cent in South Carolina). In national polls, Clinton holds a 58-point lead among African American voters compared to her six-point lead with white voters, and she’s 31 points ahead overall in FiveThirtyEight’s average of South Carolina polls (all taken pre-Iowa).

Ironically, Clinton now finds herself in a similar position to the one Barack Obama was in when battling her for the nomination in 2008: heading to South Carolina, having won Iowa but lost New Hampshire, hoping African American voters will help her win big and regain the momentum as we head towards Super Tuesday.