Where are the Milibandites when Ed needs them?

The Labour leader has to look like the head of a movement when he takes on Unite, not a lone crusader.

Political leaders are never short of unhelpful advice in a crisis. Wherever Ed Miliband turns he is told that he must be bold, that his actions must be decisive, that this deadly row with Unite and Len McCluskey could also be an opportunity, containing the seeds of renewed leadership and status.

I wrote something to that effect at the end of last week. Shortly afterwards, the messages started to come in from people who want Ed to succeed – aides and loyal MPs – saying, in effect, “yes, fine, but what?” Good question. Difficult question. A moment to reflect on how hard it is being leader of the Labour party.

Miliband’s team know they need to take charge of the situation. They know this is becoming a defining moment in the Labour’s leader’s bid to become Britain’s next Prime Minister. They know the outcome they need is Miliband emerging stronger, more clearly defined in the public imagination as a man not to be underestimated – a man whose hidden steel is revealed. What isn’t clear is how they get to there from where they are now.

The first thing they need to settle is the parameters of the battlefield. Is Ed Miliband’s leadership going to be proven in his capacity to deal with the small matter of alleged vote-rigging in Falkirk or the larger question of Unite’s explicit political strategy to influence Labour by exerting its financial and organisational muscle in candidate selections? Len McCluskey denies there was anything wrong with the Falkirk process. That is true, I suppose, once you accept that the job of getting as many Unite-dependent MPs in parliament overrides any other consideration of best practice. According to a solid Leninist ends-justifies-the-means view of the situation, Falkirk is, as some Unite officials declared it, “exemplary”. However, in terms of expressing the kind of political organisation Labour wants to be and be seen to be, Falkirk is a monumental disaster. As one party insider put it to me the other day, “the choice now is between open and closed. It’s two different kinds of politics.”

So Miliband needs to be clear about whether he is trying to close an institutional loophole or change an institutional culture. His article in this morning’s Observer suggests it is the latter, which is entirely the right choice. He makes the connection between Falkirk and general public alienation from politics. He makes the point that the main challenge for the wider labour movement is making itself relevant to successive generations of workers who may not be members of trade unions. So far so good.

Miliband also says Labour should “mend, not end” its link with the unions. That too is a sensible position to take. It is the only realistic option. The Labour leader is walking along a narrow ridge. On one side is the danger of capitulation to the McCluskey agenda, accepting that union money has a veto over party reform. But on the other side is the danger of embracing a definition of leadership cooked up by Labour’s enemies in the Conservative party and the Conservative press. They will set tests of aggression towards the unions that he will never pass, while vandalising his support base in the attempt. How well he navigates this challenge will be decided by the definition he chooses for the word “mend.” You can mend some things by covering them in gaffa tape. Or you can take them apart and put them back together again. I sense in this situation a major institutional revision is in order. Ironically, one test of its effectiveness may turn out to be creating a system that, had it been in place in 2010, would have led to a different outcome in the Labour leadership contest. Miliband may not like that feature of the debate, but he would be unwise to ignore it completely.

The Labour leader thought Len McCluskey and Tom Watson were on his side. It is clear they were not. Miliband’s real friends are the people who now come out clearly and visibly to say without equivocation that the culture inside the party must change and that they believe Ed is the man with the requisite moral judgement and political capability to do it. At the moment, there are not too many of those people around. When David Cameron gets into trouble he can normally rely on some cabinet heavy-hitters and retired big beasts to intervene on his side. (When John Major is on the Today programme it is normally a sign that Downing Street is feeling besieged.)

Who are the equivalent people closing ranks around Ed Miliband? He has lost the protection of the old Brown machine and the old Blair brigade is watching from the wings mouthing, “we told you so”. The Labour leader has supporters in the party. There is no shortage of MPs who wish him well and want him to succeed. They all do, to the extent that they want a Labour government and Miliband is the only leader they’ve got. The vital missing component from the project has always been the sense of a movement larger than Ed himself – the aggregate charisma of a bunch of people who are easily and clearly defined by shared purpose and shared belief. Three years after the election it is still hard to identify a prominent and powerful phalanx of ardent “Milibandites”. If they are out there, they now need to make themselves heard. Their leader needs them.

Ed Miliband. Photo: Getty

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

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Labour and Tory MPs fear the political forces Brexit could unleash

The Liberal Democrats and Ukip are offering Remainers and Leavers alternative homes. 

Two years ago this month, MPs felt the tremors of a political earthquake. The 45 per cent of Scots who voted for independence had driven a surge in SNP support. Five months later, in the general election, old loyalties dissolved. Forty Scottish Labour MPs and ten Lib Dems were swept away.

The referendum realigned Scottish politics along nationalist and unionist lines. The Conservatives, once considered irrelevant, acquired new purpose as the SNP’s antithesis. Labour was pushed to the margins.

At Westminster on 5 December, MPs asked whether another tectonic shift was under way. That afternoon, Sarah Olney, the Liberal Democrat who overturned Zac Goldsmith’s 23,015 majority in the Richmond Park by-election, was sworn in to parliament. Like the Scottish Conservatives, the Lib Dems had been the subject of derision. But by adopting a resolutely anti-Brexit stance they ended their political exile. In a seat where 72 per cent of people voted Remain, the pro-Leave Goldsmith was caught on the wrong side of his constituents.

Three days before Olney’s election, the new Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, declared it was his party’s mission to “replace Labour”. In a mirror image of the Lib Dems’ strategy, the Liverpudlian aims to unseat pro-Remain MPs in pro-Leave constituencies.

There is reason for caution in predicting Scottish-style ruptures. Brexit is a less defining issue than independence (turnout was 72.2 per cent in the former vote and 84.6 per cent in the latter). The SNP has formed a devolved government since 2007, allowing it to claim the mantle of incumbency as well as insurgency. The Liberal Democrats, punished for coalition in 2015, and Ukip, with a sole MP, cannot replicate this feat.

Though it felt churlish to say so following Olney’s triumph, by-elections are a historically poor indicator of general election results. In 2013 the Lib Dems hailed their victory in Eastleigh as proof that most of their 59 MPs could defy electoral gravity. Only eight did (Eastleigh’s was not among them). In 2014, after two Ukip by-election victories, excitable commentary suggested that the party could win as many as 30 seats. It won one. Supporters of both parties defected to the Conservatives when faced with the prospect of Labour taking power.

However, there are plausible reasons why the next election could upset these precedents. Brexit is a process, not an event. It will define UK politics for a decade or more. The next election could become a de facto second referendum. The Liberal Democrats will speak for aggrieved Remainers, Ukip for “betrayed” Leavers. Both Conservative and Labour MPs fear an electoral price.

“Remainers feel that they’ve been sidelined, pushed to one side, made to feel small,” Anna Soubry, the former Tory business minister, told me. She lamented that Theresa May’s “wonderful” words when she entered Downing Street were “undermined” by her “hard Brexit” conference speech. Soubry warned of the next election: “When 2020 comes along, those aged 15, 16, 17 now will be able to vote. A large number feel that they have had their future stolen by an older generation.”

To some, the potential for Lib Dem gains appears limited. Only two of their top 30 Tory targets (Hazel Grove and Lewes) are Remain seats with Leave MPs. But Conservatives worry that the Lib Dems could triumph by forging a pro-EU coalition of Labour and Green supporters. Under first-past-the-post, as the SNP can testify, seats can be won with significantly less than 50 per cent of the vote.

By far the greatest anxiety, however, is felt among Labour MPs. “We face a tougher electoral map than at any other time in our history,” Jonathan Reynolds, the shadow Treasury minister, told me. The party remains marooned in Scotland and fears a three-way squeeze in England between the Tories, Ukip and the Lib Dems. Labour’s poll ratings, which last month averaged 29.5 per cent, were described as “dire” by its general election co-ordinator, Jon Trickett, at an NEC meeting on 22 November. Jeremy Corbyn’s ally warned that the party would have to “defend some seats” at the next election, rather than focusing on targets alone.

MPs speak of a gnawing sense that Labour is the party of the past. In a less tribalistic age, when voters are no longer defined by their work, it risks political redundancy. Across Europe, social democracy appears in structural, not merely cyclical, decline.

Rather than pitching solely to Remain or Leave voters, Corbyn’s team intend to target both through a vision of “the kind of country we want to live in”, and a focus on jobs, living standards and the economy (though they do not rule out supporting a second referendum). Others, feeling the electoral ground shift beneath them, advocate more radical action. After Richmond, Clive Lewis, the shadow business secretary, reaffirmed his call for a “progressive alliance” under which Labour would not stand candidates in certain seats. Reynolds, a fellow pluralist, told me: “We can’t pretend that people have the class allegiances of the past.”

Another group, in the words of one MP, will “follow the Lib Dem playbook, treat the party as a franchise and run ultra-local campaigns”. Leaflets will be free of references to Corbyn and national policy. “You’ve got to cut the mother ship adrift and row yourself to safety.”

At the very moment that the UK is preparing to leave the EU, its politics has never appeared more European. Britain’s fractured opposition of socialists, nationalists, liberals and greens has long been common on the continent. Amid this tumult, Conservatives hope that Theresa May will predominate in the manner of Germany’s Angela Merkel. In the absence of a Labour recovery, they anticipate at least another decade in government. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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