Ed Miliband in Manchester last week to meet council leaders. Photo: Nigel Roddis/Getty
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Ed Miliband’s problem is not policy but tone – and increasingly he seems trapped

Jason Cowley on the struggles and woes of the Labour leader.

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Early one morning in September 2012 I visited Ed Miliband at home in north London. He had just returned from holiday in Greece and this was to be his first interview of the new political season, his big re-entry. He remembers the interview as the one in which he was photographed “sitting in the bushes”. I remember it as the occasion on which he showcased his new Big Idea – “predistribution”, a concept adapted from the Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker.

Having commendably held his party together when many had predicted it would split into warring factions, Miliband had grand plans. His mission was to change the rules of capitalism and to direct markets for the common good. Inequality was the scourge of our age, he told me. People felt the system was rigged against them. But the financial crisis and the Great Recession had created a social-democratic moment.

“For me it’s a centre-left moment because people think there’s something unfair and unjust about our society. You’ve got to bring the vested interest to heel; you’ve got to change the way the economy works. That’s our opportunity.” Not once did he mention Ukip or even countenance the possibility that a right-wing populist insurgency would erupt into the space that progressive politics hoped to occupy.

Miliband has a deterministic, quasi-Marxist analysis of our present ills. The Ukip insurgency, Scottish nationalism, the hollowing out of political parties, Islamist radicalisation, the loathing and distrust of elites: all are manifestations of a failed economic model.

He is a politician of unusual self-confidence. Considering his appalling approval ratings and the lack of enthusiasm many of his MPs have for him, he has exceptional resilience. It’s as if he is driven by a sense of manifest destiny, always dangerous in a politician. But what if he is wrong? What if the majority of people do not share his world-view? What if they want something more prosaic: economic competence, prosperity for themselves and their children, social justice and their government to protect them against the havoc being wreaked by globalisation? Miliband would argue that this is what he is offering through “responsible capitalism”. Yet there exists a gulf between the radicalism of his rhetoric and the low-toned incrementalism of his policies.

From the beginning Labour was always an uneasy coalition of the organised working class and the Fabian or Hampstead intellectual. Later it also became the party of public-sector workers, social liberals and dispossessed minorities. Miliband is very much an old-style Hampstead socialist. He doesn’t really understand the lower middle class or material aspiration. He doesn’t understand Essex Man or Woman. Politics for him must seem at times like an extended PPE seminar: elevated talk about political economy and the good society.

At present, he and Labour seem trapped. His MPs sense it and the polls reflect it. Ukip is attracting support in the party’s old working-class northern English heartlands and winning converts in key Home Counties swing seats that Labour would once have hoped to win. In Scotland the SNP has become the natural party of government.

In a recent interview, Alex Salmond was scathing about Miliband, describing him as “more unelectable” than Michael Foot. He had none of “Foot’s wonderful qualities or intelligence. He’s more unelectable than Neil Kinnock was; and Kinnock had considerable powers of oratory, and didn’t lack political courage.” One would expect Salmond to be dismissive of a Labour leader but it is worrying for the party that even allies now speak similarly of him and his failings.

Miliband is losing the support of the left (to the SNP, to the Greens) without having formed a broader coalition of a kind that defined the early Blair-Brown years. Most damaging, I think, is that he seldom seems optimistic about the country he wishes to lead. Miliband speaks too often of struggle and failure, of people as victims – and it’s true that life is difficult for many. But a nation also wants to feel good about itself and to know in which direction it is moving. Reflecting many years afterwards on Labour’s landslide victory in 1945, Clement Attlee said: “We were looking towards the future. The Tories were looking towards the past.”

Labour wins well when its leader seems most in tune with the times and can speak for and to the people about who they are and what they want to be in the near future: Attlee in 1945, Wilson in 1966, Blair in 1997.

Miliband does not have a compelling personal story to tell the electorate, as Thatcher did about her remarkable journey from the grocer’s shop in Grantham and the values that sustained her along the way or Alan Johnson does about his rise from an impoverished childhood in west London. I went to Oxford to study PPE, worked for Gordon Brown, became a cabinet minister and then leader of the party does not quite do it. None of this would matter were Miliband in manner and approach not so much the product of this narrow background.

He understands and has analysed astutely capitalism’s destructive potential but not perhaps its resilience and ability to absorb shocks. As Lenin said, there are no “absolutely hopeless situations” for capitalism, as we are again discovering. There are deep problems for Labour and for all social-democratic parties that transcend any one leader. But as we enter an unstable era of multiparty politics, the fragmentation of the British state and intensifying Euroscepticism, Miliband’s chief problem is not policy but tone. He needs to find a distinctive voice to articulate people’s feelings about the present moment. And he might have to accept before long – or the electorate will force him to – that Europe’s social-democratic moment, if it ever existed, is fading into the past. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.