Ed Miliband during a speech on December 15, 2014 in Great Yarmouth. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The divided left could cost Labour the election. Can Miliband recover?

As the party has shed votes to the SNP and the Greens, the Tories have emerged in front merely by standing still.

Oppositions, it is said, don’t win elections; governments lose them. In his 2011 Labour conference speech, Ed Miliband dismissed this axiom as “a consolation prize” for “leaders that have lost”. The danger for him is that he may soon join this unhappy club.

The recent run of polls showing the Tories ahead (their best performance since George Osborne’s “omnishambles” Budget in 2012) was not the result of any notable swing towards them. Rather, it reflected the drift away from Labour. As Miliband’s party has shed votes to the SNP, Ukip and the Greens, the Tories have emerged in front merely by standing still.

After failing to heal the divided right, David Cameron responded by seeking to create an equivalent fracture on the left. The plan worked. By gifting the Greens free publicity through his demand that they be included in any TV debates, the Prime Minister helped to ensure that they now regularly poll upwards of 7 per cent. That no Tory has asked the question of whether the Conservatives should be seeking to attract at least some of these voters themselves is a reminder of the shrunken ambition of the “natural party of government”.

For Labour, this trend is cause for both fear and hope. The fear is that, in a new era of six-party politics, the Tories could yet survive as the largest, even with a vote share below the 36 per cent they recorded in 2010. The resultant hope is that it requires only a modest recovery to win. It is easier, the logic runs, to squeeze recent insurgents than a government that voters have resolved to re-elect.

The rise of forces to Labour’s left at home and abroad has led to demands for it to colonise the territory that they occupy. On 26 January, as Syriza assumed power in Greece, 15 backbenchers signed a statement calling for the repudiation of austerity, the renationalisation of the railways and greater rights for trade unions. Others demand the abandonment of Trident and the introduction of a universal living wage.

To this, Labour strategists reply that there will be no left turn. They cite Cameron’s failed (and now abandoned) attempt to “out-Ukip Ukip” as a cautionary tale of the perils of fighting fringe parties on their own terms. Miliband’s team instead intends to emphasise the pre-existing radicalism of his programme and his personal commitment to combating inequality and climate change. A possible exception to this is rail policy. Discussion is taking place at senior levels about whether to toughen Labour’s current stance of allowing public-sector operators to bid for franchises as they expire. But no other concessions are foreseeable. In the case of Trident, a shadow cabinet minister told me: “Ed believes in it.” Miliband’s response to Syriza’s victory was to reaffirm his fiscal rectitude by pledging to “balance the books”.

Having devoted a full month to health policy, Labour is confident that it has achieved its ambition of putting the NHS “on the ballot paper”. Unlike in 2010, when the Conservatives succeeded in neutralising the issue, Cameron’s record in this area will receive sustained scrutiny. Labour is encouraged by polls showing that health is the issue of greatest importance to voters. For the Tories, the hope is that this will change as “winter pressures” fade and as a new eurozone crisis raises the salience of the economy.

Labour denies, however, that it intends to remain in what one critic described as a “health ghetto”. Now that it has published its ten-year plan for the NHS, its focus will move to the economy and the future of the young. A long-trailed pledge to reduce tuition fees, most likely from £9,000 to £6,000, will be unveiled in February. The policy is regarded as a vital means of retaining those who defected to the party from the Liberal Democrats and of winning back those who have migrated towards the Greens.

In the face of this novel threat to Labour’s left flank, fault lines are emerging over how to respond. The instinct of some is to deride the Greens as a crackpot outfit that would pursue negative growth, legalise membership of terrorist organisations and turn military bases into nature reserves. But others warn of the dangers of lapsing into the kind of attack politics that repels the idealistic young. They contend that instead the party should focus on burnishing its own appeal. The dirty work can be left to others. There is satisfaction within Labour ranks at the mauling that the Green leader, Natalie Bennett, received from Andrew Neil during a recent interview on the BBC’s Sunday Politics. “She’d be eaten alive in a TV debate,” one source surmised.

Should voters remain unenthused by their offers, the abiding hope of Labour and the Conservatives is that they will accept the remorseless logic of first-past-the-post and lend them their grudging support. In Scotland, Labour will accuse the SNP of creating the conditions for a Tory victory that it publicly suggests would be the worst of all outcomes. The challenge is making this case in a country where the parties are increasingly regarded as a common enemy.

In an unrestrained moment at last year’s Conservative conference, Cameron, channelling both Miliband and Tony Blair, told his party: “[If we] cannot defeat that complete shower of an opposition, we don’t deserve to be in politics.” Many in Labour regard their opponents with no less contempt. They have presided over the first parliament since the 1920s in which living standards will be lower at the end than at the beginning. They have missed every one of their original growth, debt and deficit targets. They have endured physical and intellectual defections to a right-wing splinter. Should Labour yet fall short, history will record the failure as its own alone

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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Europe’s last Blairite: Can Manuel Valls win the French presidency?

He first made a name for himself protesting against halal supermarkets. Now, he could be the man to take down François Hollande.

The election of François Hollande as the president of France in 2012 coincided with the high-water mark of Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party. That year, Labour posted its best local election results in 17 years, gaining 823 councillors and winning control of 32 councils in a performance that has not yet been surpassed or equalled.

Gazing across the Channel, the Milibandites were given hope. Hollande showed that a wonkish career politician could triumph over a charismatic centre-right incumbent.

The UK’s shattered Blairites looked to a different star rising in French politics: Manuel Valls. At the time of Hollande’s victory, Valls was the mayor of Évry, a small suburb of Paris, where he made a name for himself by campaigning against halal supermarkets.

His father, Xavier, was a Spanish painter and his mother, Luisangela, was Swiss-Italian. They met and married in Paris, and Valls was born in Barcelona while the couple were on holiday.

In 2009 Valls urged the Parti Socialiste (PS) to drop the adjective “socialist” from its name, and he ran for the presidential nomination two years later on what he described as a Blairiste platform. This included scrapping the 35-hour working week, which hardly applies outside of big business and the public sector but carries symbolic weight for the French left. Valls’s programme found few supporters and he came fifth in a field of six, with just 6 per cent of the vote.

Yet this was enough to earn him the post of interior minister under Hollande. While Valls’s boss quickly fell from favour – within six months Hollande’s approval ratings had dropped to 36 per cent, thanks to a budget that combined tax rises with deep spending cuts – his own popularity soared.

He may have run as an heir to Blair but his popularity in France benefited from a series of remarks that were closer in tone to Ukip’s Nigel Farage. When he said that most Romany gypsies should be sent “back to the borders”, he was condemned by both his activists and Amnesty International. Yet it also boosted his approval ratings.

One of the facets of French politics that reliably confuse outsiders is how anti-Islamic sentiment is common across the left-right divide. Direct comparisons with the ideological terrain of Westminster politics are often unhelpful. For instance, Valls supported the attempt to ban the burkini, saying in August, “Marianne [the French symbol] has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!”

By the spring of 2014, he was still frequently topping the charts – at least in terms of personal appeal. A survey for French Elle found that 20 per cent of women would like to have “a torrid affair” with the lantern-jawed minister, something that pleased his second wife, Anne Gravoin, who pronounced herself “delighted” with the poll. (She married Valls in 2010. He also has four children by his first wife, Nathalie Soulié.)

Yet it was a chilly time for the French left, which was sharply repudiated in municipal elections, losing 155 towns. Hollande sacked his incumbent prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and appointed Valls in his place. He hoped, perhaps, that some of Valls’s popularity would rub off on to him.

And perhaps Valls, a student of “Third Way” politics, hoped that he could emulate the success of Bill Clinton, who turned sharply to the right following Democratic losses in the US 1994 midterm elections and won a great victory in 1996. Under Valls’s premiership, Hollande’s administration swung right, implementing tough policies on law and order and pursuing supply-side reforms in an attempt to revive the French economy. Neither the economic recovery, nor the great victory, emerged.

With the date of the next presidential election set for 2017, Hollande was in trouble. His approval ratings were terrible and he faced a challenge from his former minister Arnaud Montebourg, who resigned from the government over its rightward turn in 2014.

Then, on 27 November, Prime Minister Valls suggested in an interview that he would challenge the incumbent president in the PS primary. After this, Hollande knew that his chances of victory were almost non-existent.

On 1 December, Hollande became the first incumbent French president ever to announce that he would not run for a second term, leaving Valls free to announce his bid. He duly stood down as prime minister on 5 December.

Under the French system, unless a single candidate can secure more than half of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, the top two candidates face a run-off. The current polls rate Marine Le Pen of the Front National as the favourite to win the first round, but she is expected to lose the second.

Few expect a PS candidate to make the run-off. So Hollande’s decision to drop out of his party’s primary turns that contest into an internal struggle for dominance rather than a choice of potential leader for France. The deeper question is: who will rebuild the party from the wreckage?

So although Valls has the highest international profile of the left’s candidates, no one should rule out a repeat of his crushing defeat in 2011.

He once hoped to strike a Blairite bargain with the left: victory in exchange for heresy. Because of the wasting effect of his years in Hollande’s government, however, he now offers only heresy. It would not be a surprise if the Socialists preferred the purity of Arnaud Montebourg. 

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

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump