The task for Ed Miliband at tonight’s Parliamentary Labour Party meeting, which ended a short while ago, was (in the words of one shadow cabinet minister) to “restore the morale” of MPs shaken by the near-defeat to Ukip in the Heywood and Middleton by-election.
He told those gathered in The Gladstone Room: “Four years ago, I came to the PLP and I said I would work every day to make sure Labour was a one-term opposition. We are seven months away, and that prospect, against many people’s predictions, is absolutely doable, it is within our sights. I am not going to let that opportunity slip away.” That Miliband felt the need to insist he would not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory suggests he recognises that some fear that is precisely what he is doing.
After public criticism from some MPs and figures such as John Prescott, he also issued an appeal to unity: “Normally after an election we show disunity and division. We have had four years of unity. I’m not going to let us, seven months before an election, start lapsing into the bad habits of the past.” But he conceded that “Things are going to be more difficult, this is not 1997. There will be ups and downs which make the last few weeks look easy.” He added: “I know that we will pass that test”, and said: “There are about 200 days to go, I am going to fight with every fibre of my being to win this election. I expect every person in this room, I expect every person in this party, to do the same.”
Miliband declared that Labour’s central election argument – “that the country does not work for working people” – was proving successful “because it’s right”, and that the party had announced more policies than in 1997 (citing the party’s commitment to an £8 minimum wage, 25 free hours of child care, 200,000 homes a year by 2020, and 8,000 more GPs.) That is certainly true, but many MPs believe that he has been, and remains, overfocused on policy, failing to appreciate the need to define himself and the party in less wonkish, more accessible terms (as any pollster will tell you, voters don’t notice most policy announcements).
He named the five key “battleground issues” as living standards, aspiration, the NHS, immigration, and sound economic foundations. On the party’s opponents, he denounced Ukip as “more Tory than the Tories”, attacked the Conservatives for only believing in an economy run for “a privileged few”, and said of the Lib Dems: “You can’t trust a word Nick Clegg says.”
Miliband also took questions from the floor, with 14 supportive contributions and two critical ones from Helen Jones and Frank Field. I’m told that Jones criticised the party’s lack of engagement with northern working class voters, while Field criticised its approach to immigration (he later described the meeting as “hopeless” to me). That the dissent was muted will have come as a relief to the leadership after an uneasy weekend. It serves as a reminder that Labour remains far more united than the Tories, where there are warnings of David Cameron facing a vote of no confidence if the Tories lose the Rochester by-election to Ukip defector Mark Reckless.
One shadow cabinet minister told me: “Ed was good. Hard to avoid the undercurrent of anxiety but group dynamic inevitably led to the PLP rallying around. He needs to get straight out and be bold, seize the initiative.”
This is not a party at war, but it is one badly in need of inspiration. Most MPs agree with Miliband that victory is “doable”, but he now needs to show that he is prepared to make the changes they believe are necessary to secure it.