Ed Miliband was on fine form at the New Statesman party last night, although he looked, understandably enough, a little bleary-eyed. He quipped that only three publications had supported him: “the People, the New Statesman and the Caledonian Mercury“.
In his speech, he reaffirmed some of the main messages of his campaign and his first days as leader, notably the need for humility and the need to engage with young voters. And he repeated his promise (borrowed from David Cameron) to “support the coalition when they do the right thing and oppose them when they do the wrong thing”.
His call to build a modern, “21st-century social democracy” sounded wonderfully ambitious at a time when even Sweden, that centre-left utopia, has turned right. But Miliband is the leader with the best chance of winning over the voters required to do so. The psephological reality is that Labour has lost five million voters since 1997, only a million of whom went to the Tories. The rest defected to the Lib Dems, or the Greens, or stopped voting at all. It will not win them by playing the same old Blairite tunes.
It is for this reason, as Tim Montgomerie argues in today’s Times (£), that the right is foolish to underestimate the man it calls “Red Ed”. He identifies Matthew d’Ancona’s declaration that “on Saturday, David Cameron won the next general election” as the silliest thing written in reaction to Miliband’s victory.
Labour’s new leader starts from a base of 258 seats, more than the Tories had in 1997, 2001 and 2005. He needs to win no more than 30 seats to evict the coalition from Downing Street. The latest YouGov poll puts Labour just a point behind the Tories and it is likely to take the lead at some point this week. It took three years and the fuel strikes for a single poll to put the William Hague-led Conservative Party ahead of Labour.
But, as things stand, the right shows every sign of ignoring Lao Tzu’s injunction to “know thy enemy”.