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Mehdi Hasan: Five questions that trouble Ed Miliband’s many disillusioned supporters

The questions the Labour leader can’t answer.

Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Forget the New Labour icons Tony Blair and Alan Milburn. Ignore the business bosses Stuart Rose and Stefano Pessina. If Ed Miliband isn’t prime minister after the general election in May, he has only one person to blame: himself.

The Labour leader, contrary to the lazy conventional wisdom, has the potential to be a good, even great, premier. He has, his friends say, a “Thatcher-esque” ambition to transform the British political and economic scene and has proved to be one of the most influential leaders of the opposition in living memory, forcing issues such as phone-hacking, the cost of living and Palestinian statehood on to the political agenda. If he wins on 7 May, he will walk through the door of No 10 with more high-level government experience – as a former cabinet minister and an ex-Treasury adviser – than Tony Blair and David Cameron combined when they entered Downing Street.

Yet it isn’t just his opponents who question whether Miliband will become prime minister. A growing number of his supporters do, too. Such is the right-wing reflex of much of our press that the only critique of the Labour leader which gets a hearing these days comes from either business bosses or Blairite ultras. There are, however, many centre-left MPs, peers and activists who backed Miliband’s insurgent leadership candidacy in the summer of 2010 but who now have their own issues with the Labour leader and his failures. They gather in the pubs and tearooms of Westminster to moan and groan about their man, more in sorrow than in anger.

Consider the following five questions that disillusioned “Ed-ites” often obsess over – and that Miliband has yet to address, in public or in private. First, why has a former television researcher – yes, Miliband worked briefly on Channel 4’s A Week in Politics in the early 1990s – failed to recognise how abjectly awful his performances on TV have been since 2010? Why hasn’t he taken urgent steps to improve them? In 2011 David Cameron hired Craig Oliver, a former editor of the BBC’s News at Ten, to be his director of communications. Miliband preferred to appoint three veteran lobby correspondents with zero experience in television, waiting until as late as September 2014 to recruit Matthew Laza, a former producer for the BBC of The One Show, to serve as his head of broadcasting.

Second, how did this son of Holocaust survivors allow his family’s compelling story to be ignored so easily, despite high-profile attacks from the Daily Mail and the pro-Israeli actress Maureen Lipman (who announced that she would be abandoning Labour until it was “led by mensches” – the Yiddish word for people of integrity)? How many are aware that Miliband publicly challenged a Sudanese diplomat over his “disgusting” comparison of efforts to fight climate change with the Holocaust in 2009? A video of him receiving a standing ovation from UN delegates sits unwatched on an obscure BBC News web page and unused by Labour Party spinners. (Google “‘Don’t wreck conference’ pleas Miliband [sic]” if you have three minutes to spare.)

Third, why is a former climate-change secretary who launched a “clean coal” policy, who debated against the climate sceptic Nigel Lawson and helped – in the words of the science writer Fred Pearce – “save” the Copenhagen summit in 2009 shedding voters to a resurgent Green Party? Forget “Red Ed”; whatever happened to “Green Ed”?

Fourth, why isn’t Miliband – whom the Daily Telegraph described in 2009 as one of the “saints” of the parliamentary expenses scandal – leading the assault on our sclerotic political establishment? Why has he ceded this fertile terrain to a former City trader named Nigel Farage, who once boasted he’d claimed up to £2m in expenses and allowances from the European Parliament?

Fifth, why has one of today’s few front-line Labour politicians who opposed the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq kept so quiet about his anti-war record? Why hasn’t he led the charge against the inexcusable delay in the publication of the Chilcot report? Labour is haemorrhaging voters to a range of anti-Iraq-war parties, from the Greens and the SNP to the Lib Dems. And yet, speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions on 21 January, Miliband remarked, almost as an aside, “Frankly, my views on the Iraq war are well known.” Sorry, Ed, they aren’t.

The public doesn’t have a clue that in early 2003 he phoned Gordon Brown – as I revealed on these pages in 2010 – from the US, where he was on a sabbatical at Harvard, to urge the then chancellor to resist Tony Blair’s march to war. (A former Downing Street aide told me how Brown “took Ed’s phone call very seriously but, ultimately, other views prevailed”.)

Yet on Iraq, as on MPs’ expenses, Miliband has taken a vow of silence. Why? To avoid, I’m told, embarrassing or provoking front-bench colleagues who did abuse their expenses and did cheerlead for the war in Iraq – despite Labour’s private polling showing how Miliband’s record on these issues is of huge appeal to floating voters. “The price of unity has been radicalism,” a friend of the Labour leader says. Another one told me that he “has to stop rewarding bad behaviour . . . He accommodates too much to others and isn’t forceful enough.”

Miliband is said privately to declaim that he is “strategically bold but tactically cautious”. The inescapable problem for this wannabe prime minister is that, day after day, caution wins out. The Labour leader cannot afford to be his own worst enemy, as he approaches the closest general election in a generation. Cravenness doesn’t win political battles. Courage does.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the NS and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

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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.