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Ed Miliband has a departure point and a destination, but no route map

Miliband is torn between what he would like to do and what the conservatism of the wider political

There is a certain doubleness at play in the character of Ed Miliband, a tension between the idealism of the man who ran for the Labour leadership and the realism of one who now has the responsibility to lead. He's not self-divided exactly, like Mr Goliadkin, the tormented clerk in Dostoevsky's novella The Double, but he can be self-doubting, torn as he is between what he would like to do as Labour leader and what the conservatism of the wider political culture will allow him to do.

“Those of us who worked with Ed on the campaign - the original team - are nostalgic for those times," says one supporter. "It felt purer back then. We still believe in Ed, but he's changed a lot - he feels the responsibility greatly. And we're not sure about some of the people he's got around him now."

I interviewed Miliband twice during the leadership contest and spoke often to some of the key operatives in Team Ed, the self-described flame-carriers. They liked to style themselves back then as insurgents. They were taking on the forces of reaction within the Labour Party. There was something Thatcheresque about the way, as a small group, they sought to come from the margins to seize control of the party, a quasi-Bolshevik movement that demanded change through the force of their ideas and desire to disrupt the established order. During his first speech as leader, Miliband made great play of representing Labour's "new generation", like some contemporary Pete Townshend.

A modern Croslandite

Now, all these months later, two views of Miliband are beginning to harden among those flame-carriers who are, or have been, closest to him. To some, he remains Good Ed, the same idealist who ran for the leadership, but to others he has become a calculating realist, Bad Ed. The instincts of Good Ed are those of a conviction politician. He knows what is wrong in Britain - the gap between rich and poor is too wide and ever widening, our market economy is unbalanced and needs properly regulating, the state is the engine through which greater equality can be achieved, there is more to life than the acquisition of another car, and so on. Good Ed has a point of departure and a destination. His mantra during the leadership contest was that he had no wish to repeat the New Labour playbook.

He defined himself against the market dogma, militarism and authoritarianism of New Labour and against his brother, David, who stoically sought to defend the record of the last Labour government including, disastrously for him, the Iraq war.

Good Ed did not exactly disown the record, but he never hurried to embrace it. He portrayed himself as anti-establishment. Or, at least, he reached back to embrace an older, deeper Labour establishment. "We've got our party back," enthused Neil Kinnock, one of his most prominent supporters. "Ed is a modern Croslandite," Roy Hattersley told me, "because he is a libertarian and believes it is the obligation of the state not to impose equality, but to promote it."

The trouble for Good Ed is that he has no route map, it is said; the summit of the mountain is there before him, but he does not know how to climb it. He's not exactly stuck at base camp, but neither does he know the way ahead. He has willing and able Sherpas around him - the admirable (Lord) Stewart Wood, consigliere and minister without portfolio in the shadow cabinet; (Lord) Maurice Glasman, the "Blue Labour" communitarian thinker; Chuka Umunna, the young MP who has impressed with his performances on the Treasury select committee; Lucy Powell, who narrowly missed out on winning the seat of Manchester Withington at the last election - but are they all moving him along in the same direction?

The instincts of Bad Ed are also those of a conviction politician, but one who is prepared to compromise and triangulate, to do deals, to court the Murdoch press. All good for a party leader who wants to win elections, one would have thought. Bad Ed, it is said, listens too much to Tom Baldwin, the Blairite bruiser who moved from the Times to work as his head of media relations. Miliband may have sharpened up and professionalised the media operation, but for some he is too deliberative, slow to strike out in bold and unorthodox directions.

“Ed deserves far more credit than he's got," counters one of his senior aides. "A lot of pro-David [Miliband] commentators were predicting total meltdown. But every single hurdle that's been put in his way - fratricide, factionalism, Red Ed, lack of steel, inability to take on the Tories, inability to win an argument, inability to perform at PMQs - he's got over. This is part of a long, long game."

He has established broad ideological positions on "the squeezed middle, on life beyond the bottom line [the Blue Labour agenda] and on the next generation and the British promise". (The British promise is the idea that each generation will do better than the one before it.) "We were mocked for using the term squeezed middle - remember the Today programme interview - but it's been an agenda-setting victory for us." Quite so.

The challenge ahead

As our leader in last week's New Statesman said, some success in the latest elections is vital for Miliband if he is to unite the party. However, if the Scottish National Party, cunningly led by Alex Salmond, holds on to power, and if the AV referendum is won by the No campaign, Miliband will have suffered two defeats before he has served a year as leader. Even if Labour wins as many as 1,000 seats in the council elections in England - the least that can be expected, his critics say, given how dismally the party polled in the elections of 2007 - there is still a pervading sense, unfair or otherwise, that Miliband and Labour should be doing much better, especially when opposing a government that is rolling back the frontiers of the state at a pace not attempted even by Margaret Thatcher at her most belligerent, and with the Liberal Democrats so unpopular.

There is no organised discontent against Miliband, nor as yet any inchoate challenge. But there is a powerful debate taking place about the future direction of the party, as there should be after the profound defeat of 2010. "This is where we must be in a year," says one prominent supporter of his brother. "Ken [Livingstone] will need to beat Boris [Johnson] in London, and we will need to be at least 15 points ahead in the polls. If we're not, and the economy begins to pick up, we're in deep trouble."

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 09 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Beyond the cult of Bin Laden

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide