Ed Miliband is considerably more likely to be the next prime minister than most people have realised.
The biggest reason is less to do with a solid Labour win in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, or anything the Labour leader has yet done to set out his stall for the year ahead, which will be his task at Saturday’s Fabian conference, but is rather the stark difficulty in identifying a plausible re-election strategy for David Cameron.
No postwar prime minister has ever governed for a full term and then increased their party’s share of the vote at the next general election. It will not be enough for Cameron to recover his support if an economic upturn arrives at the end of his austerity parliament; he must break the mould and increase it. Unless he can become more popular while governing, something that has eluded his predecessors in the best of economic conditions, there will not be a Tory-majority government elected in May 2015.
Yet a Tory-Lib Dem pact seems close to impossible, and Michael Ashcroft is gathering evidence that it wouldn’t work anyway. And Cameron will struggle to negotiate his way back in if he seeks a majority and falls short: this time it would be his legitimacy in question. Any outcome where alternative governing combinations are possible could well see him ousted.
These Tory difficulties are not cause for Labour complacency. Even with a fairly modest increase in Labour’s vote from 29 per cent, Ed Miliband has every chance of drawing the next election by default. He would very likely become prime minister with one more seat or one more vote than the Conservatives. But winning outright is probably as tough for Labour as for the Tories. Hung parliaments are as likely to be the norm as the exception, as IPPR has recently set out. (Those who disagree need to complete the sentence: “It should be easier for the Tories to win a majority in 2015 than it was in 2010 because . . .”)
Miliband has received much contradictory advice since becoming leader. He has been told that nobody wants to hear from the last government, and to define himself in 100 days. He has been reminded that he has a fragile mandate from a close, and split, leadership result, and told to assert himself on his critics. He has upset MPs concerned about his desire to draw a line under the New Labour era, and his repeated voicing of fears that Labour has yet to understand how much it has to change to reconnect. Such, inevitably, is the lot of the leader of the opposition.
In his first three months, Miliband established that he will have a more collegiate leadership style, and that he is in the foothills of a long campaign and doesn’t see rushing into photo opportunities or political pyrotechnics as the answer. His party’s morale is mixed. Among younger activists, who campaigned in great numbers in Oldham, it is high. But excepting the class of 2010, many Labour MPs have been fairly miserable ever since the autumn of 2007, with the novel experience of recession and defeat mixed into the cocktail of hatred towards MPs after the expenses crisis.
The most daunting challenges for the Labour leader are to restore the party’s economic reputation and forge a new political economy, and to demonstrate some supple leadership in dividing the coalition and demonstrating Labour’s ability to adapt to this more plural political environment. Punching the Liberal Democrats in the face is often not the best way to exploit the emerging coalition fault lines. He must also define the broad themes of his policy review. A quarter of current party members were not in Labour a year ago – the test remains whether Labour can show that they can shape its campaigns and policy.
Another feature of 2011 may be an ever sharper geographical polarisation in British politics. The electoral map between coalition and the opposition – except for Labour in London and the Scottish Lib Dems – presents quite a stark north-south divide, which the pattern of public spending and cuts will exacerbate. This is a problem for the government, whose “there is no alternative” mantra risks creating a bunker mentality. But it will not be enough for Labour to rack up enormous leads in Scotland and the north if it cannot also rebuild its collapsed support in the south outside London.
The opening to the new year has been good for Miliband. The government cannot win a public argument about why it is increasing VAT but refusing to renew the bank bonus tax.
If, as the governing parties claim today, Labour was always going to win the Oldham East by-election, it is quite a mystery why it took place.
While Tory tactical voting has averted a deeper Lib Dem party crisis, the by-election has cost Nick Clegg his governing strategy – his warnings to his party not to seek distinctiveness within the coalition now scrapped in favour of “Operation Detach”, and an increasing amount of yellow dissent at every level.
Conservative MPs are in a mood to respond to this. The patently false Conservative claim that they fought a whole-hearted campaign has brought trust between Cameron and his party activists to new lows. If Cameron would like some form of pact or arrangement, he has increased the obstacles to it.
There is no threat to the coalition itself, but these self-inflicted wounds are potentially significant longer-term fissures. Ed Miliband will welcome the assistance but certainly cannot rely on his political opponents. At the Fabian New Year conference on Saturday, he will need to begin to colour in the shape of the alternative platform he is beginning to construct.
Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society. The New Statesman is media partner for the Fabian/FEPS New Year Conference “Next Left: What is the Alternative?” on Saturday.