Ed Miliband addresses an audience on the NHS in the Brooks Building of Manchester Metropolitan University. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Even if Miliband is a second-placed prime minister, it would still be a victory for Labour to savour

Were the Labour leader to take power it would be a triumph for parliamentary democracy against the elite. 

Before the 1997 election, Roy Jenkins compared Tony Blair to a man carrying a priceless Ming vase across a highly polished floor. Ed Miliband has no such precious artefact. If he does enter office, it will be without a majority, let alone Blair’s glistening 179. But the analogy captures the comparable sense of anxiety in Labour today. Shadow cabinet members concede that even they have been surprised by how well they have fared to date. The party has proved resilient against the Conservative onslaught on Miliband and its economic credibility. The Labour leader, who a year ago lost his fight with a bacon sandwich, has been mobbed by a hen party on the campaign trail. Barring a significant shift in the polls, he will become prime minister after 7 May. It is this that explains Labour’s creeping nervousness. Despite the Conservatives’ deeper coffers and media firepower, the prize is “ours to lose”, in the words of one shadow cabinet minister.

The prospect of short-circuiting Labour history by returning to power after just one term, however, is marred by the knowledge that it is unlikely to be a clean victory. The forecasts that show Miliband heading towards No 10 do so only on the assumption that he would secure the support of the SNP in a hung parliament.

It is this that the Tories are exploiting mercilessly. Conservative strategists believe the message that the SNP would hold the whip hand over Labour is potent enough to attract the Ukip defectors and southern Lib Dems whom they have yet to persuade. David Cameron’s warning that English hospitals would be starved of funds and bypasses would remain unbuilt was a mark of the demagogic lengths that the Tories are prepared to go to. Such is the extent to which the Tories have talked up the SNP that it is easy to forget that they are running candidates in each of Scotland’s 59 seats.

Conservatives question both the morality and the efficacy of this ploy (one MP tells me that it is “crowding out” the party’s positive economic message). Yet it has discomfited Labour. For the first time since the campaign began, the party unambiguously lost the “air war” as broadcasters prioritised the Tories’ anti-SNP blitzkrieg over Labour’s “NHS week”. Candidates from all parties testify that the theme has entered popular conversation. Miliband has ruled out a coalition with the SNP but has stopped short of rejecting any arrangement for fear of de­legitimising the Scottish voters who only recently resolved to remain part of the UK.

“If you hold the balance, then you hold the power,” Alex Salmond has declared, a grandiose aphorism repeatedly cited by Cameron. The leverage the SNP would enjoy is not as strong as suggested. The natural pro-Trident majority across the three main parties would prevent the Nationalists from threatening Britain’s nuclear weapons. They could vote down Labour Budgets but only at the cost of allying with the Tories and obstructing measures endorsed in their manifesto such as the repeal of the bedroom tax and the reintroduction of a 50p income-tax rate. Yet, since the party’s overriding goal is an independent Scotland, it has less reason to fear policies being blocked by a Westminster system that is apparently impervious to change.

The Tories’ new strategy may still fail to give them the seats they need to govern. Every constituency that the SNP wins off the Lib Dems and every one that the Conservatives take from their coalition partners reduces the bloc of potential supporters available to Cameron in lieu of a Tory majority. Labour may still secure the 43 gains it requires from the Conservatives to be the single largest party in the event that it loses all 40 of its Scottish MPs to the Nationalists. But even if Miliband falls short, he could emerge as the only leader capable of assembling the 323 votes needed to prevail in the Commons. It is this that creates the possibility that, for the first time since 1924, the party that finishes second not merely on votes (as Labour did in February 1974 and the Tories did in 1951) but on seats could form the government. Miliband could face the nightmare scenario of what one MP describes as “dual illegitimacy”: depending on the votes of a nationalist party to pass English-only legislation (a two-fingered answer to the West Lothian Question) and ruling as runners-up rather than victors.

Though politically treacherous, there is no constitutional obstacle to Labour taking power in these circumstances. An administration would have to be formed eventually and the party could point to European examples (such as Willy Brandt in Germany and Fredrik Reinfeldt in Sweden) of second-placed leaders assuming office. The resultant government would be denounced as “un-British” and “unfair” – but so was the coalition, by some. It would be up to Miliband to earn political legitimacy swiftly by introducing popular policies and radiating competence. After the painful birth, the fate of his government would ultimately rest, as all do, on the performance of the economy and the success of its reforms.

There is fear among some Labour MPs that the 2015 election could be a victory (or non-victory) from which they never recover. They envisage a later election in which Ukip erodes the party’s working-class base, the Greens capture its middle-class redoubts and the resurgent Conservatives (led by Boris Johnson or Theresa May) eat into both. But for Miliband to become prime minister, having repeatedly been told by so many that he could not, would still be a victory for Labour to savour. He would have entered office despite the overwhelming opposition of the media and the corporate sector, the forces regarded since the Thatcher era as exercising a de facto veto over British elections. Whether Miliband finishes first or second, parliamentary democracy will have won.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

Show Hide image

The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue