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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.

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.

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.