Ed Miliband could still make his leadership work. Photo: Getty
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Why Ed Miliband should reconcile One Nation ideals with New Labour rhetoric

How the story of Ed Miliband’s leadership can still have a happy ending.

Over the past few years my research has looked closely at Ed Miliband’s leadership performance. Through textual analysis, elite interviews and focus groups, I’ve sought to deconstruct the way Miliband has sought to define and embody a narrative that inspires the public to throw its weight (and votes) behind Labour.

We found moments of genuine success, particularly in the "One Nation" speech Miliband gave at the 2012 Labour party conference. Until this point, Miliband’s narrative had been akin to a Shakespearian tragedy – the pretender who knifed his brother to usurp his claim to the throne of the fallen king. But in his highly personalised articulation of "One Nation" values, Miliband appeared to have successfully assumed the role of the young Prince.

However, this narrative stumbled. It was simply too divisive and too critical of New Labour – a regime which may have fallen but was the embodiment of rhetorical clusters (public service reform, economic discipline and pro-aspiration, etc) that still resonate with many within and beyond the party.

All is not lost, even at this late stage.

First, Miliband needs a team that can be relied on to cheer on the One Nation narrative, not simply mumble its support whenever party plot rumours surface. His team must be actively performing the narrative themselves, going out there and being seen by the party, the media and the voters as a unified, slick, powerfully-performed Labour. Miliband must give his inner circle an ultimatum: back me or get out.

Second, he needs to make peace with New Labour by reconciling its rhetoric within "One Nation". For too long, Miliband has distanced himself from the ideals of New Labour, which, for all its faults, served the party well with its unifying rhetoric. It’s time to stop campaigning against the most successful moment in his party’s history.

Third, Miliband must make sure that strong performance is matched by strong policies. Labour must make clear what its plan is for its first 100 days in power. The party could and should have developed a whole set of distinct policies by now, especially in the key areas of the economy, devolution and immigration. Task each shadow minister with producing a five-point crib sheet for every policy.

Finally, Miliband must make sure that a unified One Nation narrative, actively promoted by an enthusiastic shadow cabinet/election team, articulates a vision of tomorrow. It doesn’t matter if this vision is more mythological than concrete, it must simply identify how the values of One Nation will be applied to build a better future.

Labour’s chance is slipping away. If it is going to make any kind of effort to win in May, it must do it now. It must stick with Miliband – to change leader now would reek of weakness – but Miliband must assume true leadership before it’s too late. Can he do it? Of course he can. He has kept the party united like no other leader. He and his team need only "lift" the party narrative to a national narrative. Do that and he's the next prime minister.

John Gaffney is Professor of Politics at Aston University and Co-Director of the Aston Centre for Europe. His study of UK political leadership will be published in a book, "Leadership and the Labour Party: The One Nation Adventure", by Palgrave following the May 2015 general election

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe, specialising in French politics and the discourse of leadership.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.