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 Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.