Ed Miliband takes questions at the Policy Network Conference held in the Science Museum on July 3, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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As its poll lead holds, Labour is divided – between those who fear defeat and those who fear victory

The party could inherit a state that, in parts, is on the brink of collapse. 

When Ed Miliband declared before his meeting with Barack Obama at the White House, “I am going because I want to be prime minister of Britain in less than ten months,” he spoke with the conviction of a man who fully believes that he will be. The Labour leader’s self-confidence bewilders those in his party who predict that they will lose in May 2015, but it cannot be dismissed as delusional.

For the fourth summer in a row, the opposition has entered the parliamentary recess ahead in the polls and in the marginal seats that will determine the general election result. There is ill-disguised outrage among Conservatives and parts of the media that Miliband has made it this far. Those who regard him as unfit even to be leader of the opposition find it too painful to contemplate him in Downing Street.

Others, absorbing the data, are adjusting to the prospect of a Labour victory. When I told one Conservative MP that Miliband believes the press onslaught against him is motivated by the fear that he will win, not the belief that he will lose, he replied: “That’s exactly right.” The public admission by the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, that he is planning for negotiations with Labour in a hung parliament offered an insight into the calculations that many Liberal Democrats are making in private. Others are preparing to flee Westminster. There is no mystery as to why Dan Byles, the Conservative MP for North Warwickshire (with a majority of just 54), has become the eighth Tory elected in 2010 to announce that he will not defend his seat.

After 16 months of economic recovery, with GDP surpassing its pre-crisis peak, some Tories expected to have eroded Labour’s advantage by now. But their ratings, like the public’s wages, are flatlining. After briefly drawing level with inflation earlier this year, average earnings are now rising at the slowest rate since comparable records began in 2001. It is partly for this reason that, while trailing on economic management, Labour continues to lead as the party that would most improve living standards. David Axelrod, the Obama strategist hired by Labour, has noted with hope that this is the trend seen during the US president’s defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012.

Yet the moroseness among Labour’s ranks reflects the awareness that the party’s lead has more to do with antipathy for the Conservatives and the Lib Dems than sympathy for the opposition. “The most depressing thing is when people say, ‘We’re just voting for you to stop the Tories,’ ” an MP told me.

Others are finding alternative receptacles for their discontent. Michael Ashcroft’s most recent marginals poll found that Ukip is now in first place in Thurrock (Labour’s number-two target seat) and Thanet South (where Nigel Farage will likely soon announce his candidacy). The Greens are polling at their highest level since 1989. If the election produces a second successive hung parliament for the first time since 1910, it is this fracturing of the anti-government vote that will explain why.

The shared hope of Labour and Tory strategists is that voters will view the election as a binary choice between their two parties. But this summer, both will find themselves on the same side as they unite against Scottish independence. The possibility that the country could vote to secede from the UK on 18 September, after 307 years of union, makes the outcome of the general election appear almost trivial by comparison. But after a significant wobble early this year, Better Together campaigners are increasingly confident of victory, if less certain of achieving the double-digit win they believe is necessary to avoid a “neverendum”.

Most Conservatives are sincere unionists but some privately reflect that another opportunity to tilt the electoral landscape in their favour will have been missed. After the earlier defeat of the proposed boundary changes, Labour will now retain its 41 MPs north of the border (a figure certain to increase next year), while the Tories keep an electorally worthless one.

Provided that Scotland votes against secession, attention will shift to the least predictable election since 1992. Unusually, all three of the main party leaders will be able to tell his autumn conference, with a straight face, to “prepare for government”. But all fear what victory would bring.

For the Tories, it would mean an in/out referendum on the EU that could split the party as no issue has since the repeal of the Corn Laws. For Labour, it could mean inheriting a state that, in parts, is on the brink of collapse: a bankrupt NHS, an imploding housing market (forcing a precipitous rise in interest rates) and a prison system at full capacity, combined with the requirement to accelerate the deepest public-service cuts since the war, or raise taxes by an equivalent amount. “Sometimes I worry more about winning than losing,” one Labour frontbencher tells me.

Others fear an electoral outcome that creates a new crisis of legitimacy for Westminster: the Tories winning the most votes but Labour the most seats; the Lib Dems having fewer voters than Ukip but four times as many MPs; a parliament so hung that neither Labour nor the Tories can form a majority government, even with Lib Dem support. Some MPs are preparing for the possibility of a second general election that perhaps only the Conservatives would have the financial resources to fight adequately.

When not battling each other, all of the parties face a collective struggle to maintain relevance in an age of voter alienation. To most people, Westminster is the place where ignorant armies clash at night. Both Labour and the Tories, the two great tribes that once commanded 97 per cent of the vote between them, will be lucky to scrape home with much more than a third each. In this war of the weak, even the winner could end up feeling like a loser. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.