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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.