Ed Miliband delivers his speech at the Labour conference last month in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Miliband tells Labour MPs: I won't let victory "slip away"

The Labour leader tells a private meeting of his parliamentary party that he won't allow it to fall into "the bad habits of the past". 

The task for Ed Miliband at tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting, which ended a short while ago, was (in the words of one shadow cabinet minister) to "restore the morale" of MPs shaken by the near-defeat to Ukip in the Heywood and Middleton by-election. 

He told those gathered in The Gladstone Room: "Four years ago, I came to the PLP and I said I would work every day to make sure Labour was a one-term opposition. We are seven months away, and that prospect, against many people's predictions, is absolutely doable, it is within our sights. I am not going to let that opportunity slip away." That Miliband felt the need to insist he would not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory suggests he recognises that some fear that is precisely what he is doing. 

After public criticism from some MPs and figures such as John Prescott, he also issued an appeal to unity: "Normally after an election we show disunity and division. We have had four years of unity. I'm not going to let us, seven months before an election, start lapsing into the bad habits of the past." But he conceded that "Things are going to be more difficult, this is not 1997. There will be ups and downs which make the last few weeks look easy." He added: "I know that we will pass that test", and said: "There are about 200 days to go, I am going to fight with every fibre of my being to win this election. I expect every person in this room, I expect every person in this party, to do the same."

Miliband declared that Labour's central election argument - "that the country does not work for working people" - was proving successful "because it's right", and that the party had announced more policies than in 1997 (citing the party's commitment to an £8 minimum wage, 25 free hours of child care, 200,000 homes a year by 2020, and 8,000 more GPs.) That is certainly true, but many MPs believe that he has been, and remains, overfocused on policy, failing to appreciate the need to define himself and the party in less wonkish, more accessible terms (as any pollster will tell you, voters don't notice most policy announcements). 

He named the five key "battleground issues" as living standards, aspiration, the NHS, immigration, and sound economic foundations. On the party's opponents, he denounced Ukip as "more Tory than the Tories", attacked the Conservatives for only believing in an economy run for "a privileged few", and said of the Lib Dems: "You can't trust a word Nick Clegg says." 

Miliband also took questions from the floor, with 14 supportive contributions and two critical ones from Helen Jones and Frank Field. I'm told that Jones criticised the party's lack of engagement with northern working class voters, while Field criticised its approach to immigration (he later described the meeting as "hopeless" to me). That the dissent was muted will have come as a relief to the leadership after an uneasy weekend. It serves as a reminder that Labour remains far more united than the Tories, where there are warnings of David Cameron facing a vote of no confidence if the Tories lose the Rochester by-election to Ukip defector Mark Reckless.

One shadow cabinet minister told me: "Ed was good. Hard to avoid the undercurrent of anxiety but group dynamic inevitably led to the PLP rallying around. He needs to get straight out and be bold, seize the initiative." 

This is not a party at war, but it is one badly in need of inspiration. Most MPs agree with Miliband that victory is "doable", but he now needs to show that he is prepared to make the changes they believe are necessary to secure it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496