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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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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