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Both Labour and the Tories are battling for control of the centre, but will this moment last?

Whoever succeeds Ed Miliband as Labour leader will pursue a more moderate strategy. 

By George Eaton

If the Labour leadership candidates have found it easy to distance themselves from Ed Miliband’s approach, it is partly because they never believed in it from the start. None of the contenders (Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Mary Creagh and Liz Kendall) endorsed him in 2010 and three preferred his brother. They always doubted that his left-aligned strategy would succeed in a quietly conservative England. The election result confirmed their view.

All of Miliband’s putative successors have positioned themselves to his right. Kendall has argued that the 50p income-tax rate should not be permanent. Cooper has called for the party to end its opposition to a 20 per cent corporation-tax rate. Even Burnham, the most left-leaning candidate, has rejected a mansion tax as “the politics of envy” and has criticised Miliband as insufficiently pro-business. All have said that the last Labour government should have run a Budget surplus before the financial crash.

Their positions reflect a shared analysis of the party’s worst election defeat since 1987. Labour is judged to have lost because it was not trusted to manage the public finances, it should have cared more about wealth creation (rather than merely wealth distribution) and it failed to appeal to Conservative voters. This consensus repels those on the left, such as the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, who argue that the party lost because it embraced austerity, fought on Tory territory by promising a “Budget Responsibility Lock” and pledged too little market intervention. “Rather than trying to change the party, they should change party,” one left-wing MP remarked of the candidates’ rightward trajectory.

Yet the nature of the defeat has made it harder for the left to define the terms of debate. Rather than merely losing votes to the SNP and the Greens, Labour lost votes to the Conservatives. There is no credible path back to power that does not involve converting Tory supporters in England. As data analysis first published by the New Statesman showed, simply to become the single largest party, Labour needs to win 51 seats from the Conservatives (up from 27 in 2010). A 6 per cent swing against the SNP would deliver gains of just two in Scotland. Only 16 seats would fall to Labour if it won every Green voter and retained all of its existing support. Some cite the “lazy Labour” thesis, which suggests that the party lost as a result of the failure of the 2.9 million who said they would vote for the party to turn out on the day. But a strategy premised on attracting them next time is freighted with risk. As one Labour source notes: “The problem with non-voters is, well, they tend not to vote.” To win, the party will need to attract the fair-minded moderates who swing between Labour and the Tories and who have decided every election since 1945.

It is because of this psephological reality that the next Labour leader will pursue a more centrist strategy than Miliband. This, it should be noted, is not the same as a centrist manifesto. A party can make a moderate pitch to the nation without significantly diluting its programme. David Cameron has masterfully smuggled through Thatcherite policies under the guise of One-Nation Conservatism. Labour’s 1997 manifesto included interventionist measures such as a minimum wage and a windfall tax on the privatised utilities. But the party did not allow such measures to define its election platform. Ben Bradshaw, who is standing for the deputy leadership, told me: “We don’t have mad politics or mad policies. We just had the wrong political strategy and the wrong messaging and the wrong approach.”

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The greatest challenge for Burnham, the front-runner, may not be his (recently acquired) left-wing reputation but his ministerial past. The Tories will charge him with neglect of the NHS while health secretary (having refused to open a full public inquiry into the Mid Staffordshire scandal) and with neglect of the economy while chief secretary to the Treasury (despite presiding over a frugal Spending Review in 2007). At the PLP meeting on 18 May, Harriet Harman urged MPs to vote based on which candidate the public liked most, rather than which they did.

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Others suggest identifying the contender who is most feared by the Tories (who presciently cheered when Ed Miliband was elected). The hope of Kendall’s supporters is that with Chuka Umunna and Dan Jarvis absent from the race, she will be embraced as a “clean skin” free from the toxic associations of the last Labour government. However, in view of the arithmetical Everest the next leader will face, some suggest a Machiavellian motive for Umunna and Jarvis standing aside. “Of course Dan backed Andy. It gives him five years to prepare,” one Labour source quipped. Whoever wins will begin by seeking to fight from the centre but if the strategy does not immediately bear fruit, the new leader will soon face demands to turn left (just as Tory equivalents did to turn right).

Still, after years of ideological divergence, Labour and the Tories have begun the new term fighting for ownership of the same political territory. David Cameron’s decision to devote his first speech since the election to the NHS was designed to underline his “One Nation” intent. George Osborne’s rhetorical focus is no longer the deficit but the “northern powerhouse”. Yet, once the post-election euphoria fades, and with the alibi of coalition government no longer available, they will struggle to resist demands for more red-blooded conservatism. With their opponents divided and ruled, however, the Tories can savour this Elysian moment. “In opposition, you move to the centre. In government, you move the centre,” runs one of Osborne’s favourite aphorisms. As he prepares to deliver yet another austerity Budget, it is a lesson that the Labour leadership candidates should heed.