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

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.