Ed Miliband speaks at the Labour conference in Manchester earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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“The only way is down”: If Labour can’t inspire itself, how can it inspire the country?

Six months away from the general election, Labour is struggling to convince the country that it has the authority to govern – and its MPs are becoming ever more despondent.

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In the early years of this parliament it often seemed to Labour MPs that next May’s general election was one they couldn’t lose. Support for the Liberal Democrats had collapsed to single figures in the polls. The Conservatives, who won just 36 per cent of the vote in the most auspicious circumstances in 2010, had retoxified their brand by abolishing the top rate of income tax, introducing the bedroom tax and breaking their vow not to reorganise the NHS. Ukip had divided the right in the manner that the Social Democratic Party divided the left in the 1980s. The economy had recovered at its slowest rate since the Long Depression of the 1870s. Finally, in defiance of a prophesied bloodbath and its schismatic history, Labour had remained united.

The party’s sanguineness was matched by the moroseness of its opponents. “While the Conservatives struggle to piece together two-fifths of the electorate, Labour’s core support plus left-leaning former Lib Dems could theoretically give Ed Miliband close to 40 per cent of the vote without needing to get out of bed,” Lord Ashcroft, the psephologist and Tory peer, warned his side in 2011 – and many agreed. In anticipation of defeat, Conservative minds turned to the leadership election to come. Their ill-disguised gloom reinforced the opposition’s bullishness.

To Labour MPs contemplating the state of their party, those days seem distant. “Morale has never been lower,” one shadow cabinet minister told me. Six months away from the general election, the party’s poll lead has withered to a single point or, some surveys suggest, has eroded entirely. Labour’s Scottish fortresses, which it successfully defended in 2010, winning 41 seats, are in danger of falling to the SNP. Ed Miliband’s personal ratings have entered the subterranean territory hitherto reserved for Nick Clegg. The Conservatives’ lead in the polls on the economy has increased to a record level of 16 points. Ukip’s advance is threatening key target seats. And the previously united left is fragmenting as the Greens poll as high as 8 per cent.

History may be a less useful guide to this election than any other in recent times but the precedents are still foreboding for Labour. In the past 30 years, as data compiled by the former party official Hopi Sen shows, only one opposition (the Conservatives in 2005) has improved its poll ratings between the final conference season and the subsequent general election. The others have declined by between three and 13 points.

Oppositions have won while trailing on leadership or on economic management. In 1979, the Tories triumphed despite Jim Callaghan’s 19-point advantage over Margaret Thatcher as “the best prime minister” and Ted Heath defeated the more popular Harold Wilson nine years earlier. In 1997, as Ed Balls likes to remind his shadow cabinet colleagues, Labour trailed the Conservatives by seven points among all voters on “managing the economy” and by 22 points among those who said the issue was important. What no opposition has done is win while behind on both of these defining metrics. It is this that explains why some fear, as one shadow minister puts it, that: “The only way is down.”

What troubles MPs is the seeming lack of a “plan B” to revive the party’s fortunes (although aides promise major policy announcements on the economy and immigration). The “cost-of-living” frame, developed by the Labour leader’s director of policy, Torsten Bell, is regarded as astute but insufficient. “We haven’t successfully pivoted from that to offering an account of how we’d run the country differently,” I was told.

Jon Cruddas, the party’s policy review head, has long spoken of the need for Labour’s voluminous proposals to be anchored in a richer, deeper story of national renewal. But after the hasty abandonment of the “one nation” motif it is ever harder to identify the thread that binds seemingly disparate policy measures. The new theme of “together”, deployed 47 times in Miliband’s Manchester conference speech, has received little nourishment since. The result is that, despite Labour announcing more policy than any opposition in recent times, voters routinely complain that they no longer know what it stands for. Contrary to Conservative predictions, the cost-of-living crisis has not ended (after six years of decline, average weekly earnings remain 0.5 per cent below inflation). But ever fewer seem to regard Labour as the solution.

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Alongside living standards, it is the issue of the NHS that party strategists want to define the election. “We’re going to return to it again and again and again, for political and policy reasons,” one told me. There is no issue on which the party enjoys a larger lead and no institution that is more cherished by the public. Some, however, question the value of a health-centred strategy. “Most people whose primary concern is the NHS are probably already going to vote for us,” one shadow minister said.

During previous periods of angst, Miliband has reassured his critics by delivering a bravura conference performance, as he did in 2012 (the “one nation” speech) and 2013 (the “energy price freeze” speech). But this year’s speech in Manchester, with its omitted passages on the deficit and immigration and its unremarkable content, had the reverse effect: it demoralised rather than inspired. Little Miliband has said or done since has assuaged his uneasy party.

No MP I have spoken to has argued that the Labour leader’s parlous ratings aren’t a problem or dismissed them as a “Westminster bubble issue”. “We’re all very, very concerned. The reality is that whilst we don’t have a presidential system, people are thinking increasingly about who they want to be the prime minister,” one shadow minister said. He went on to describe a “sobering moment” in which a voter told him: “You’ve been a fantastic MP, but I’m not going to vote for you. Because Ed’s not prime ministerial.”

“It did focus my own mind around the fact that you can be a good MP locally and well respected and even though it will be your name on the ballot paper, people will go into the polling booth mindful of who they want to do the top job,” he added.

Another shadow minister told a story with a happier ending for her party. After a traditionally loyal Labour voter threatened to withdraw his support on account of Miliband’s performance, she rebuked him and told him to focus on the loftier issues of the NHS and living standards. “Oh, right you are,” he replied. A vote was saved but the conclusion is a melancholy one for the Labour leader: a significant number of his party’s supporters will back Labour in spite of rather than because of him. The evidence from the doorstep aligns with that from the polls: the most recent YouGov survey found that 44 per cent of Labour voters believe Miliband is doing a bad job (compared to 3 per cent of Conservatives who say the same of Cameron), while research by Lord Ashcroft showed that only 55 per cent of the party’s supporters would rather have him as prime minister than Cameron.

In these circumstances, many in Labour argue that greater use should be made of the most talented shadow cabinet members with Miliband acting as a voice in the choir or as the captain of a team, rather than as a solo performer. At the Conservative conference, Cameron’s aides contrasted the prominence accorded to senior figures such as Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and William Hague with the narrowness of Labour’s approach, in which some frontbenchers were barred from making new announcements and restricted to a word count of 700 for their speeches.

The difference is that the Prime Minister’s team acts from a position of strength: Cameron continues to outpoll his party comfortably. In the view of one shadow minister, the worse Miliband’s approval ratings, the less willing his aides are to embrace “Team Labour” for fear of being seen to admit failure. Discussions on who will be “the faces” of the party’s general election campaign have yet to begin.

What most agree on is that the televised leaders’ debates, assuming they take place, could be the saving of Miliband. The common argument is that expectations will be so low that he cannot fail to impress. Strategists regard the debates as an opportunity for the Labour leader to speak directly to the country, unmediated by a hostile press devoted to humiliating him at every turn. The format, they believe, will favour his best-rated qualities: decency, empathy and cleverness. As the papers demonise him as the most dangerous man in Britain, the public may warm to the leader who wants to freeze their energy bill and build more affordable homes.

One senior MP suggested that Miliband should abandon Westminster, save for Prime Minister’s Questions, and go on a rolling tour of marginal constituencies. “The 200-400 voters in key seats who say on the doorstep that he’s the problem, he could win them round by talking to them.” But he doubted whether Miliband had the will to do so. “His confidence has gone. It’s like a light’s gone out,” he lamented.

The Labour leader has had his moments – the poleaxing of the Tories during the phone-hacking scandal, the energy price freeze coup, the battle with the Daily Mail after its smearing of Ralph Miliband (all points at which his personal ratings significantly improved) – but these have not formed a unified whole. Miliband is fond of mocking Cameron’s response to the question of why he wanted to be prime minister: “Because I think I’d be rather good at it.” But to most voters it remains unclear why he wants to be.

The answer, as Miliband tells friends, is to reduce inequality. By framing the general election as a battle to determine who the economy is run for, he aims to avoid a contest fought on the narrow terrain of fiscal competence. Labour’s reputation for profligacy, which the Tories hoped would condemn it to defeat, no longer seems destined to do so. Private polling by the party shows the deficit falling in importance to voters as the economy recovers and living standards rising in importance. The Tories like to present Miliband and Balls as “Mr Brown’s boys” but Labour focus groups show that few voters associate them with the last government.

The concern expressed by some shadow cabinet ministers is that the party’s “offer” is not equal to the “crisis” it has diagnosed. They say it is Labour’s failure to present a more radical prospectus that is driving voters towards Ukip and the anti-austerity Greens. One point of tension is Balls’s pledge not to borrow for new spending commitments, which has limited the potential for investment in mass housebuilding. At the conference of the left-wing think-tank Class on 1 November, Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary and shadow London minister, defied party policy and argued for the Treasury-imposed cap on council borrowing to be lifted to allow them to build more homes. Among Labour’s left, discussion frequently turns to the importance of ensuring that any defeat is blamed on an excess of caution, rather than of radicalism.

In these straitened times, the party draws consolation from the absence of any significant swing towards the Tories. Rather than being won over by the incumbent party, voters have deserted Labour for the SNP, Ukip and the Greens. The hope is that they will return as the election brings into focus the party's status as the only force capable of slaying the Tory beast.

But tribal loyalties, as elsewhere in Europe, are fast diminishing. Where plausible alternatives to Labour exist, voters are embracing them. The fragmentation of the electorate is a milder version of the epochal shifts seen in Greece, where the radical Syriza now leads in the polls, and in Spain, where the left-wing Podemos, founded just eight months ago, also leads.

Labour is insulated by an antiquated voting system that favours it more than any other party. Based on some estimates, the Tories need to be three points ahead before they become the largest party. But the prospect of a victory achieved by arithmetical caprice dismays those who once aspired to ride a wave of anti-austerity discontent to win a mandate for far-reaching economic and political reform. “It’s a battle between a shit Labour Party and a shit Conservative Party,” said one Labour frontbencher, distilling the mood of resigned misery. “The winner will be the one that’s a little bit less shit.” Unable to inspire itself, Labour has never seemed further from inspiring the country. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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

Photo: Getty Images/Ian Forsyth
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The big battle in Corbyn's Labour party will be over organisation, not ideas

Forgotten and near-moribund institutions of the parliamentary Labour party will become vital once again, explain Declan McHugh and Will Sherlock. 

“Decidedly downbeat” was Chris Mullin’s assessment of the first Parliamentary Labour Party meeting following the 2001 landslide General Election victory. Blair was “received well, but without elation … the managing director was treated to some blunt warnings that this time around the boys and girls on the shop floor expect to be treated with more consideration.”

Assuming he wins the leadership, Jeremy Corbyn’s first PLP meeting will be anything but downbeat. The ‘shop floor’ will be more akin to a Lions’ Den. Labour’s new figurehead will face a PLP overwhelmingly opposed to him. Many will question the legitimacy of his election and some will reject his authority. From day one, he will face a significant number of Labour MPs not merely against him but actively out to get him. There has probably never been a situation where a leader of the Labour Party has been so far removed from the parliamentary party which he supposedly commands.

The closest historical parallel with Corbyn is arguably George Lansbury, another ardent socialist who took charge of the party after serious electoral defeat. But the comparison doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Lansbury may have been on the left but he had been a leading figure at the top of the party for many years. Corbyn has never been anything but part of the Labour fringe – rarely even attending PLP meetings.

Nevertheless an immediate move to oust him is unlikely. Whatever their concerns about the circumstances of his election, the scale of the contest will make MPs nervous about executing a coup. And crucially there is no obvious alternative leader waiting in the wings.

The internal battle against Corbyn will instead be more drawn out and fought through the internal structures of the party. The number of Labour MPs showing a sudden and hitherto undiscovered interest and expertise in the PLP Standing Orders is an indication of what is to come. When Labour is in government, journalists pay little notice to obscure internal committees. Now they are going to be the centre of attention. The PLP may be energised on an organisational front in a way that it never was during the Blair, Brown and even Miliband years. Conflict is likely to be focused in the following arenas:

  • Shadow Cabinet

Corbyn is now understood to populate his shadow cabinet by appointment, but opponents in the PLP are seeking a return to the system of elections. That will not be straightforward. Although the 2011 decision to end elections was primarily achieved by means of a PLP vote to change Standing Orders, it was subsequently agreed by the NEC and passed into party rules by Conference. It will be harder to undo that constitutional knot than it was to tie it. The PLP can vote to change Standing Orders again but the NEC and Conference will need to reflect that in further amendments to party rules if the decision is to have constitutional authority. That sets the scene for a messy clash between the PLP and the NEC if Corbyn chooses to defy the parliamentary party.

 

Even if elections are restored, it is not clear how Corbyn’s opponents in the PLP will respond. MPs seeking the return of shadow cabinet elections hope to run a slate of candidates who will work to emasculate the new leader. But others have already resolved to boycott the front bench, regardless of how it is selected. Corbyn’s opponents face a dilemma. On the one hand abandoning the shadow cabinet may be viewed as walking off the pitch at a time when others are prepared to get stuck in and organised. On the other, it will be impossible to take a shadow cabinet post without signing up to some level of collective responsibility. That means undergoing the daily grind of defending the party line in front of the 24 hour media spotlight, with all statements scrutinised and recorded by Conservative researchers for future use.  How many Labour MPs would be willing to support a Corbynite line on foreign affairs, defence and economic policy? The new Labour leader will soon find out.

 

  • PLP meetings

The Monday evening meetings of the PLP are a weekly arena in which the frontbench and the party leadership are held to account by the wider parliamentary party. In the Kinnock, Smith and Blair days, although occasionally raucous, there was a degree of deference to the Leader. That has waned of late but will likely be non-existent under Corbyn. No one can remember the last time the PLP voted on a matter of policy, but Standing Orders permit it to so – expect opponents of the leadership to use this device.

 

  • PLP Chair

John Cryer, the current PLP Chair, will have his work cut out trying to manage what are likely to be stormy meetings. Moreover, the annual election of the Chair is an important barometer of the parliamentary party’s mood and the easiest means of organising a proxy vote on confidence in the leader. Importantly, the Chair of the PLP approves what motions can be tabled at the weekly PLP meeting. 

 

  • Parliamentary Committee

The parliamentary committee are effectively shop stewards for the backbenchers and the election of representatives is similarly a reflection of political sentiment in the PLP. New elections won’t happen until next May but the PLP could decide to initiate earlier elections. Labour MPs will ask whether the current committee, which includes one Corbyn nominator, is representative of the majority view. If not, a slate opposed to the leader could be organised. The Parliamentary Committee has executive powers that it rarely uses but this may change and will be significant. 

 

  • Departmental Groups

The PLP’s internal policy committees have been in decline since the early years of Tony Blair and have rarely made waves but have potentially important powers, including the right of Committee Chairs to speak from the Despatch Box. MPs may use these bodies to challenge frontbench policy positions in a way that no leader has experienced, promoting alternative agendas at odds with the leadership line on foreign affairs, defence and the economy. The Chairs have not yet been elected and this could be a key focus in the autumn.

 

  • Whips Office

The idea of Jeremy Corbyn directing the PLP to follow three-line whips is, to many, a source of amusement. A man who regularly topped the charts of rebel MPs will struggle to maintain the traditional system of party discipline – and indeed he has already indicated that he has no intention of “corralling” MPs in the traditional way. Most likely the whips will play a distinctly different role in the future, acting more as shop stewards for backbench MPs who want their concerns made clear to the Leader’s Office. And the likely deputy keader Tom Watson, who hails from the right wing union tradition but is close to some of the left, will play a major part in trying to balance the needs of the new leadership with the real anger of backbench Labour MPs.

Corbyn’s lack of authority and support within the wider parliamentary party puts a major question mark over his long term prospects as Labour leader. He would certainly lose any direct trial of strength against the PLP.

But the Corbynite group will seek to avoid confrontation inside Westminster. They believe their strength lies in the party outside Parliament and in the new influx of members and supporters. Their agenda will be to capitalise – though they might not use the term – on the leadership triumph by instituting rule changes that will revive the left within the party machine. Not just inside the NEC, the Conference and the party HQ but in the regional and constituency party organisation.

Most particularly, they are likely to seek to convert supporters into members, with a role in the selection of parliamentary candidates. By such means they will seek to apply external pressure on MPs from their own constituency parties. Labour members may be understandably wary about moving to decapitate a new leader so soon after his election. But they face a race against time to prevent him and his supporters from reshaping the party machine in ways that will undermine them from below.

 Will Sherlock and Declan McHugh are former Labour special advisers who now work at Lexington Communication.