There is an outside chance that Labour could still win the next election – we may yet see Ed Miliband strolling confidently up Downing Street one sunny morning in May 2015. But if that happens it will have nothing to do with Labour or its leader.
When Miliband was elected party leader in 2010, I had a number of concerns. First, for me, he didn’t tick the box of what a prime minister looks like. Second, having shifted to the left skilfully to defeat his brother, he would find the task of dragging his party back to the political centre where elections are won that much harder.
Now, Labour is not going to be dragging itself back to the political centre. Or strolling nonchalantly towards the political centre. It’s not going to be moving towards the political centre at all.
At the Labour party conference in Brighton, Miliband took a fateful decision. To ensure that his party secures the votes of approximately a third of the electorate – the much vaunted “35 per cent strategy” – he has opted to turn his back on the other two-thirds of the electorate. There will be no accommodation with those who want to see a tough stance on welfare reform, or who feel Labour should adopt a hardline stance on immigration. There will be no fiscal straitjacket. No embrace of free schools. No bold programme of public-service reform. Labour will fight the next election on its most left-wing political platform since Michael Foot was leader in 1983. And, barring a miracle, it will lose on it.
The next election has, in effect, been placed in the hands of three men, David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage. They will choose how the remaining 65 to 70 per cent of votes will be divided up. If they split them evenly, Miliband may still become prime minister. If they don’t, he won’t. Labour now has virtually no say in how those votes will be parcelled up; with the possible exception of a referendum on Europe, it has little real influence on anything.
How has Miliband got himself into the position in which he has chosen voluntarily to disenfranchise the majority of those who could have voted for him? Partly it relates to his victory in the leadership election. Few new leaders have been elected with so little room for manoeuvre. Denied a clear mandate by his failure to win the constituency and MP sections of Labour’s electoral college and forced to surround himself with a shadow cabinet that had not endorsed his candidacy, Miliband was handed a tainted inheritance.
According to Labour insiders, in the early days the plan was to solidify support among his centre-left base, then gradually build outwards from it, guiding the party back towards the electoral mainstream as he did so.
This never happened. Miliband’s failure to use his crucial first 100 days to define himself caused his leadership to be quickly placed under intense pressure and scrutiny. As a result, he found it impossible to lay down secure enough foundations on which to build a more centrist programme.
Another problem was Miliband himself. The Labour leader had enjoyed a relatively low profile outside of the party’s immediate family. He just wasn’t prepared for the level of scrutiny or criticism that was suddenly flowing his way. “Forget all that Zen stuff,” one Miliband ally told me. “Ed’s actually quite thin-skinned.”
A vicious circle was created. Miliband’s failure to cut through generated criticism. That, in turn, heightened his insecurities and made him cling even closer to his base, which has made it harder for him to connect with the voters. And so it continued. There is no breaking that circle now. The staging of his big conference speech was instructive. He was, literally, surrounded by his party. It enveloped him.
Almost every one of Miliband’s major announcements was aimed squarely at his activists. Directly setting the prices of the privatised energy utilities. Appropriating property developers’ land. The abolition of the bedroom tax. Votes for 16-year-olds. All the issues that could have challenged his party were either glossed over (immigration targets), not mentioned (the welfare cap), or dodged (the confrontation with the Unite leader Len McCluskey over the selection of a parliamentary candidate in Falkirk).
Which isn’t to say that nothing he said would resonate in the wider world. We would all like to see lower energy prices. Yet he wasn’t reaching beyond the hall, instead asking the rest of the country to come and join in. If the rest of the country said no, his attitude was simply: “That’s tough.”
This was not where Miliband was supposed to be. When he told his first conference, “Red Ed? Come off it,” it wasn’t because he thought, three years later, he would be unveiling the de facto nationalisation of the power companies, planning to bring the railways back into public ownership, embarking on what has been described as a “Marxist land-grab” and standing on a pallet pledging to “bring back socialism”, as he did one afternoon in Brighton.
Labour’s leader is running out of time. The next election is 19 months away. Even if he wanted to, he couldn’t shift his party from where it is to where it needs to be to win a convincing majority.
Instead, Miliband has made his position clear. There will be no attempt at compromise with the electorate. He will wait on the sidelines while Cameron, Clegg and Farage decide among themselves who will get the keys to Downing Street. An avowedly leftwing leader will stand on a left-wing prospectus and try to win power from the left for the first time in half a century. The voters? They can take it or they can leave it.
They will probably leave it. But credit on one level – Ed Miliband is not chasing power. Instead, he is waiting to see if power, by some bizarre alignment of the political stars, will find him.
Dan Hodges is a blogger