The Labour Party, Harold Wilson once remarked, is like a stagecoach. “If you rattle along at great speed, everybody is too exhilarated or too seasick to cause any trouble. But if you stop, everybody gets out and argues about where to go next.” No one can claim that Ed Miliband has stopped. Since the 2013 Labour conference, he has announced policies at a rate that Westminster historians agree exceeds that of any recent leader of the opposition. Yet everybody is still arguing about where to go next.
Turn left, turn right, stay straight: Miliband wakes each day to contradictory advice from party grandees. Absorbed by the deadly cycle of comment and countercomment, Labour MPs fear a repeat of last year’s summer of discontent.
If the party is divided over where to go next, it is partly because the journey has taken so long. By this stage of the parliament, a general election would usually have been held, or be imminent. But as a result of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act introduced by the coalition, the date has been rigidly fixed at 7 May 2015. With ten months remaining and the Damoclean sword of a snap election removed, the arguments go on.
The uncertainty surrounding the outcome next May, amplified by the modern innovation of daily opinion polls, breeds further tension. “We know what it looks like when a party isn’t going to win after one term. We’re not in that place,” says one Labour strategist, contrasting the progress made by Miliband with William Hague’s unambiguously doomed leadership. “But we’re also not in a ’97-style position.” As long as this remains the case, Labour figures have every incentive to offer unsolicited advice. Even Miliband’s loudest detractors believe he has a plausible chance of becoming prime minister. Peter Mandelson says, “The electoral arithmetic is probably on his side.” Maurice Glasman declares, “Labour can win under Mr Miliband.”
The internal ructions ultimately reflect a more profound question: which direction is the driver going in? Of all the criticisms made of Miliband in recent weeks, the one that has stung most is that voters don’t know what he stands for. The Labour leader is a man who prides himself on his ideological clarity, contrasting his “intellectual self-confidence” with David Cameron’s equivocations. Yet the truth, wearily relayed to the leader by MPs and activists, is that few voters know how Britain would look different under a Labour government.
This is partly a reminder of what the Conservative peer Daniel Finkelstein calls “the universal law of politics”: most people, most of the time, don’t listen to anything said by any politician. If Miliband is fortunate, the majority of voters may have heard of his energy price freeze, but he should assume little more. This is why Labour MPs are so troubled by his poor personal ratings and by the party’s perceived lack of economic credibility. A shadow cabinet minister tells me that he fears future policy announcements will sound like “white noise” to voters who doubt Labour’s basic fitness to hold office.
If the public is unsure what Miliband stands for, it is partly because he has often appeared unsure himself. There is Ed the radical, who is “bringing back socialism” and talks of sweeping away three decades of neoliberalism through a Thatcherite revolution in reverse. Then there is Ed the incrementalist, who learned his politics at the feet of Gordon Brown and who talks gently of building a “fairer capitalism” and reveres consensual “one-nation politics”.
The radicals in Labour fear the latter is winning the contest for Miliband’s soul. One of his early supporters recently told me how disappointed he had been by the modesty of his announcements to date. “When Ed mocks the Tories for calling him a ‘Marxist’, or for stealing his policies, it’s a reminder of how timid he’s been.”
The blame for Miliband’s caution used to be attributed to the nefarious influence of “the Blairites”. But after their humbling in last year’s shadow cabinet reshuffle, it is now more often attached to Ed Balls.
The shadow chancellor is sceptical of Miliband’s project to remake capitalism. He warned that his energy price freeze would harm relations with business and sought to dilute his commitment to carve out two “challenger banks” from the big high street institutions. The speech he gave at the London Business School at the end of June, in which he argued, “Over the last 20 years, the global economy has fundamentally changed – and changed for the better,” took a notably more benign view of globalisation.
However, there is no evidence that he or anyone else has acted as a significant brake on the Labour leader’s radicalism. The more plausible explanation is that Miliband’s moderation is the result of his own calculations about the compromises necessary to win a general election. When the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, recently warned him to reject “the siren voices of austerity-lite”, he neglected to consider that Miliband simply believes they are right.
The complaint frequently expressed by the left is that his team lacks “true believers”. But this, too, rests with him alone. In a little-remembered act of boldness early in his leadership, he abolished shadow cabinet elections to give himself complete freedom over appointments. Whether he stages the reshuffle that some are privately urging will be an early test of his willingness to reassert his authority.
The most important struggle in a Labour Party that remains, by historic standards, ideologically united may not be between factions – but within Miliband himself. Only when this internal conflict has been resolved, only when the radical or the incrementalist has taken charge, will the rest of the party stop giving directions.