Labour enters its penultimate conference before the next general election with party morale lower than at almost any other point since the resounding defeat of 2010. The return of economic growth, coinciding with a sharper and more confident Conservative performance, has narrowed its poll lead to the extent that it can no longer be confident of winning a majority. The party unity that had characterised Ed Miliband’s leadership was fractured by the Falkirk selection debacle, which pitted senior figures such as Labour’s former campaign co-ordinator Tom Watson and the shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, against each other, and has yet to return.
Mr Miliband’s trade union reforms, which will require union members to “opt in” to joining the party, are likely to cost Labour roughly £8m in lost affiliation fees but there is little enthusiasm for his ambition to build a mass membership party. Union leaders complain, with some justification, that the party has failed to outline a policy agenda capable of persuading their members to sign up.
Among the electorate, Labour is increasingly regarded with a mixture of indifference and hostility. Much of the press despises the party and does not respect its leader. Even those instinctively loyal to the party complain that they no longer know what it stands for. Having failed to define itself, Labour is in danger of being defined by its opponents – as fiscally profligate, anti-business, opposed to all and any welfare reform and impervious to anxiety over immigration. Mr Miliband continues to trail behind David Cameron as a preferred prime minister, with personal ratings only marginally better than those of Nick Clegg. The Tories enjoy a convincing lead as the most economically competent party. The danger for Labour is that just as it finally unveils its policies, voters will have lost faith in its capacity to deliver them.
If many in Labour appear morose, it is partly because their hopes were raised last year. Mr Miliband’s appropriation of Benjamin Disraeli and his rhetoric of the “one nation” provided Labour with a powerful frame with which to set itself against a socially and economically divisive Conservative Party that has been defeated decisively in Scotland and much of the north of England. But in the months since, Labour has failed to develop the emblematic policies required to make the concept relevant to voters. Instead, “one nation” has become a mere rhetorical appendage, lazily attached to every shadow ministerial brief. It has stood for everything, so it has stood for nothing.
Mr Miliband’s good fortune is that, for reasons largely beyond his control, he retains a better-than-even chance of becoming prime minister after the next election. Because of the vagaries of the British electoral system, Labour needs a lead of just 1 per cent on a uniform swing to win a majority, while the Conservatives require a lead of 7 per cent.
Owing to the defection of left-leaning Liberal Democrats to Labour and of right-leaning Conservatives to the UK Independence Party, Labour’s lead in the polls, although slight, remains consistent. Yet Mr Miliband’s project was supposed to be about much more than scraping over the line with the aid of voters who are resentful of the coalition. It promised an economic and social transformation.
In an interview with the New Statesman last year, the Labour leader spoke ambitiously of his plan to remake British capitalism and to end the pursuit of short-term profit over long-term investment. Twelve months later, he is no closer to explaining how this will be achieved in a globalised era in which capital transcends national boundaries and companies relentlessly seek out low-wage, low-tax locations.
More promising is his preoccupation with declining living standards and the struggles of the so-called squeezed middle. Just as wages fell before the recession, so they continue to fall during the recovery. Earnings are unlikely to outstrip inflation until 2015 at the earliest, leaving the average adult £6,660 worse off. Yet if Mr Miliband is to secure power, it will not be enough to convince voters they are poorer under the coalition. He will need to convince them that they would be better off under Labour. In the 2012 US election, Mitt Romney resurrected Ronald Reagan’s well-known line – “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” –but the electorate sided with Barack Obama because the numbers were at least moving in the right direction.
To persuade a risk-averse electorate to return Labour to office after just one term in opposition, the party needs to produce transformative policies on wages, jobs, education, housing and childcare that clearly distinguish it from the coalition. It needs a vision of the kind of country it wants Britain to become. How would it reform public services? On the issue of welfare, it needs to recapture the old spirit of William Beveridge and the contributory principle. It ought to think seriously about the EU and Britain’s place within it. It needs to say how it would, in the aftermath of the referendum on Scottish independence, set about reconfiguring the Union. What of the English question, about which Anthony Barnett writes so energetically on page 46?
Once he has established a positive policy agenda, Mr Miliband needs to assemble a team capable of explaining it to a sceptical electorate. The performance of the shadow cabinet has been lacklustre. Mr Miliband urgently needs to shake it up; he needs both new talent and more experience. Before the next election we would like to see the return of Alistair Darling and Alan Johnson to the front bench, if they can be persuaded. Andrew Adonis, the former schools minister and architect of the academies programme, should return with immediate effect to the shadow cabinet. He speaks and writes with power and conviction; his personal story is inspiring. He has been a forceful and persuasive critic of the failures of the coalition. He believes in big projects and is a committed social reformer.
Mr Miliband should also look to a popular and experienced backbench figure such as Margaret Hodge (interviewed by Caroline Crampton on page 15). As chair of the public accounts select committee, Ms Hodge, at the age of 69, has remade herself as an indomitable foe of avarice and waste. Alongside this, he should promote the most promising MPs from the 2010 intake, including Stella Creasy (who outlines her optimistic vision of the future on page 39) and others such as Liz Kendall and Rushanara Ali.
Labour’s charge that recovery has come too late and risks enriching the few at the expense of the many is a potent one. Yet as the excellent plan to extend free school meals to all five-to-seven-year-olds demonstrates, the coalition is already working to blunt the opposition’s claim that it is presiding over a “cost-of-living crisis”. While Mr Miliband can only talk, the government can act. The next week is one of the last opportunities he will have to persuade voters that Labour can answer the questions it first posed.