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  1. Politics
6 November 2014updated 22 Jul 2021 5:50am

“Things have changed rapidly in the last 48 hours”: what’s going on in the Labour party?

Talk of meltdown in the Labour party is dominating the news, but what is actually happening?

By Anoosh Chakelian

Since Ed Miliband’s poor performance at Labour party conference in September, a following collapse in his poll ratings, the ascendancy of the SNP, and the Greens creeping up in the polls, Labour has been approaching a crisis moment. And it seems that moment is now, as George reported in his piece for this week’s New Statesman, quoting some senior party sources voicing their unease about the state of their leadership.

And other media outlets have picked up on the plummeting Labour mood. The Times is now reporting that there are fears today among the shadow cabinet that a letter is being circulated by backbenchers calling for Miliband to stand aside. The BBC is reporting that “some backbenchers” – the number still seems to be two at the moment – have been to see the chairman of the PLP, Dave Watts MP, to tell him that Miliband should stand down. One Labour MP tells me,”things have changed rapidly in the last 48 hours. If you’d have asked me on Monday, I’d have said he [Ed] would stay. But I’d say now that it’s more likely than ever he’ll be pushed out.”

Miliband has dismissed the briefings against him as “nonsense”, and on the subject of him standing down from the leadership, he told the BBC: “I don’t accept that this matter arises.” Ed Balls has similarly denied that there is a Labour coup rumbling beneath the surface.

There are a lot of anonymous remarks, both from the backbenches and members of the frontbench team, criticising Miliband’s leadership and predicting doom for the party, but so far it seems that this is only talk. As of yet, no MP, including Miliband’s arch critics, have had sight of the letter supposedly going round calling for his resignation. One backbencher tells me: “I’ve complained today and asked them to tell Ed to step aside, but I only heard people grumbling. I’ve heard there’s a letter, but I haven’t seen it myself, and certainly haven’t signed it.”

I also hear that one ally of the leadership has locked their office door and “turned up the music”, to avoid party members asking him about Miliband standing down. Other words I’ve heard from Labour sources have included “meltdown” and “freefall”.

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But aside from what appears to be mild hysteria, this has all been anonymous and no MP has come out on-the-record in favour of Miliband being ousted. Also, there is the crucial fact that it is technically much harder for the Labour party to replace its leader than it is for the Tories to do so.

There is a convoluted process for selecting a Labour leader; when there is no vacancy, any nomination must have 20 per cent of the PLP’s support, and then there are the party members, MEPs, affiliated trade unions and socialist societies to think about. And perhaps most importantly, in the case of no vacancy, nominations are sought each year prior to the annual session of party conference. The party couldn’t wait until the next party conference to oust Miliband, because it would be after the general election, and so the only way for him to go is if he were to take the decision himself to stand down. It’s unlikely that a letter – even if it does exist – from a few disgruntled backbenchers would cause him to do this. The only way it would happen is if a number of shadow cabinet ministers urged him to go.

However, one longer-term difficulty for the party now, whether Miliband stays or goes, is what all this means for its target seats. I hear from one MP who attended the PLP meeting in the Northwest on Tuesday evening this week that they are planning to reduce the number of their target seats because they just don’t have the resources to fight in constituencies where they are likely to lose – because of Miliband’s leadership making the party unpopular with voters.

“There is a problem with the leader, so we’ll have to discard some of our targets,” says my source. “Because the leader is doing that badly, it’s such a turn-off. So we’ll have to stop putting resources [in certain target seats]”. They add that they will have to resort simply to “defending” seats they already hold, “rather than trying to win new ones”. But this is still under discussion, and no numbers have yet been decided.

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