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Lords reform is becoming a test of whether Ed Miliband can control his party

There is a discreet culture war brewing in the Labour ranks.

If David Cameron does not already regret his failure to nurture devotion in the cohort of Tories first elected to parliament at the last election, he will do soon enough.

The 2010 intake, amounting to nearly half of all Conservative MPs, ought to be a loyal Cameroon infantry. Many were selected to fight winnable seats from the Tory leadership’s “A-list” – the “modernising” fast-track for fresh-faced candidates to renew the party’s public image. Yet they now feel unheeded and underemployed.
A handful of eager supplicants will get junior ministerial jobs in a long-awaited reshuffle – widely expected to happen in September. But that will create as many resentments as it appeases. Besides, the malaise is about more than thwarted ambition.
Many MPs feel they won their seats despite, not because of, their leader’s efforts. Now in power, there is a growing sense that the whole Cameron project is drifting and that the future of Conservatism lies elsewhere. The Prime Minister is said to be bogged down in coalition haggling and day-to-day news management. 
It is still possible to find Tory MPs who predict a Conservative majority at the next election  but their calculations rely on scathing assessments of Ed Miliband and expectations of a Labour implosion. Few look to Cameron for inspiration. “The next election won’t be a beauty contest between competing ideas for the country,” says a despondent Tory 2010-er. “There is a complete lack of intellectual direction from the top,” says another.

Culture war

A similar lament can be heard from recent arrivals on the opposition benches. Miliband’s position has been strengthened by Labour’s double-digit advantage in opinion polls. But reservations about the dynamism of his leadership remain. There is a fear that a mediocre mid-term bounce is being misinterpreted as a licence to duck difficult decisions and wait for the government to fail. “We’ve got more confident,” says one young backbencher. “The question is what we do with confidence.”
There is a discreet culture war brewing in the Labour ranks between those who think they can plot a route to power with a sequence of tactical manoeuvres and those who crave a grand strategic vision. It is partly, but by no means exclusively, friction between an idealistic new generation and cynical veterans of the Blair-Brown wars. It is also a disagreement over the kind of politics Labour should be engaged in: coalition-building or coalition sabotage.
The tension has been brought into sudden relief by the party’s dilemma over House of Lords reform. Legislative battle over Nick Clegg’s plans (an upper chamber reduced to 300 members of whom 80 per cent would be elected) could begin within weeks. Labour has yet to agree a strategy.
Miliband’s allies say that his preference is for the plans to have safe passage, at least on the early stages of their journey through the House of Commons. That would require Labour MPs voting with Lib Dems to neutralise a Tory rebellion.
There are a number of reasons for such a manoeuvre. It would signal that Labour remembers its own manifesto commitment to an elected upper chamber and can vote according to its reformist principles, even if that means siding with the government. It would also show a capacity to look beyond tribal party boundaries – a trait liked by the electorate and a habit worth acquiring, given the likelihood that parliament will remain hung after the next election.
The rival view is that Lords reform could be the unmaking of the coalition and that the opposition ought to be hastening that demise. Few Labour MPs like the idea of building legislative life rafts for Clegg’s party just as they are about to slip below the water. (Although, arguably, Labour would destabilise the coalition more by cosying up to the Lib Dems.) There are also several Labour MPs who have principled objections to the detail of Clegg’s proposals and many more who worry that voters will despise politicians for constitutional navel-gazing at a time of economic emergency.
All of these arguments – and many arcane deviations on mischievous ways to exploit parliamentary procedure – were voiced at a bumptious meeting of Labour MPs on 18 June. The pro-reform side is now concerned that Miliband is not confident enough of his authority to order Labour MPs to vote with Lib Dems and will instead side with the saboteurs. “We have serious party-management issues,” says one shadow cabinet minister. Some Miliband supporters worry that a retreat from the principle of reform would feed the party’s most reactionary instincts and limit the leader’s room for manoeuvre. “It would tell people that they can push Ed around,” says a senior Labour source.

National optimism

No one in Labour thinks Lords reform is a priority. But that is why it risks becoming an emblematic issue. It is emerging as a proxy battle to test whether Miliband can choose a line and whip his party behind it. If he cannot have his way over a constitutional tweak, serious questions will be raised about his capacity to manage the many more profound differences simmering away unresolved in the Labour party – what promises to make on public-sector cuts, for example.
Young Labour MPs see the frustration on the faces of their Tory peers as a symptom of Cameron’s failure to tell a compelling story about where he wants to lead the country. That is a damaging omission at a time when people are frightened of economic crisis without end. It also creates an opportunity for Labour to stand as the party of national optimism.
No one thinks Miliband is yet ready with a winning formula. His advantage is that he has used up less of the public’s patience than the Prime Minister, which gives him hope of having his alternative offer heard. That indulgence will quickly be withdrawn if he is pinned down in a petty war of attrition against the government.
Downing Street would love to face an opposition with a weak leader who can neither impose his will on the old generation nor inspire the new one. Miliband is in danger of furnishing Cameron with that luxury. 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader