This was supposed to be Ed Miliband’s great moment. Labour figures had long awaited the May elections as an event that would see him confirmed as a prime minister-in-waiting. But Nigel Farage disrupted the ceremony. After Ukip’s performance, it was he, rather than Miliband, who acquired that most valuable of political commodities: momentum.
Farage’s announcement that he would launch his party’s general election manifesto in Miliband’s constituency of Doncaster North (where Ukip topped the polls in the European election and finished a close second in the locals) was symbolic of how he has knocked Labour off course. Just when he would want to be advancing remorselessly on Downing Street, Miliband faces a rebel uprising in his own backyard. How he responds will do much to determine whether he recovers from the most difficult period for his leadership since last summer.
What he will not do, as he signalled in his speech on 27 May in Thurrock (where Ukip gains deprived Labour of overall control of the council), is to follow David Cameron’s example. The Prime Minister first insulted, then ignored, then imitated Ukip. Miliband is determined to fight Farage on his own terms. Unlike Cameron, he will not give the Ukip leader what he craves most: the promise of an in/out EU referendum in the next parliament. Farage needs Miliband to match Cameron’s pledge in order to repel the Tory line that the only way to guarantee a referendum is to vote Conservative, not Ukip, in 2015. But Miliband has no intention of making a promise from which he would derive little or no political benefit (the issue does not even make it into the top ten of voters’ concerns) and that could eventually produce a premiership-ending defeat.
That Miliband does not feel the need to lurch or to U-turn stems from the extent to which he believes the rise of Ukip confirms his existing intellectual and psephological analysis. As one shadow cabinet ally told me: “The idea that, suddenly, because of the magic abilities of Farage, Ukip have come out of nowhere to do what they did in the Europeans and the locals is wrong; it’s absurd and incorrect. We’re reaping what we sowed back in ’97 through to 2005, when we gave the impression to our working-class heartlands that they were communities that we took for granted. We kept on talking to them about globalisation, but that was passing people by.”
In his speech at Ukip’s triumphalist post-election press conference, the party’s deputy leader, Paul Nuttall, referred to the five million votes New Labour lost between 1997 and 2010, a figure Miliband cited often during his leadership campaign. Of this group, most of whom are working class, just 1.1 million went to the Tories, while 1.6 million went to the Liberal Democrats and half a million to the British National Party. The remainder stopped voting at all. It is this “left behind” demographic that Ukip is now attracting. Michael Ashcroft’s latest polls of marginals showed that 30 per cent of Ukip supporters in these seats did not turn out at all in 2010.
In recent months, Miliband has assembled a series of interventionist policies with potential appeal to this group: a higher minimum wage, more affordable housing, tougher labour-market regulation and cheaper energy bills. What he has lacked, figures from all wings of the party argue, is an overarching narrative that resonates with voters as powerfully as Farage’s story of national loss and abandonment. Labour’s offer, it is said, has become too “transactional”. As a former shadow cabinet minister told me: “We need simpler and stronger messages. A ten-point plan to deal with the cost-of-living crisis is a coherent policy programme which passes muster in seminars but can you remember ten items on a shopping list? I can’t when I go down to Morrisons to do the shop.”
Conscious of such criticisms, Miliband has begun to recalibrate his message. “Blue Ed is back,” one Labour MP told me after his Thurrock speech. With its references to “family”, “community” and “solidarity”, Miliband’s Thurrock address paid intellectual homage to Blue Labour, the group of communitarian thinkers assembled by Lord (Maurice) Glasman.
Owing to the leader’s recurrent disagreements with the iconoclastic peer, the movement’s enduring influence on the party has often been overlooked. Among Miliband’s inner circle, his speechwriter Marc Stears, strategist Stewart Wood and chief of staff, Tim Livesey, are all supporters. The party’s policy review is led by Jon Cruddas, Blue Labour’s greatest parliamentary champion. The group has been the dominant influence on Miliband’s stance on immigration, which rejects both the xenophobic parochialism of Farage and the laissez-faire globalism of Tony Blair. Although his position is attacked from the right of the party by John Hutton and Alan Milburn and from the left by Diane Abbott, Labour strategists argue it is consistent with his wider support for economic interventionism. As one told me: “In the same way that we think that free markets can be good thing, if they’re managed and regulated in the public interest, it’s not really surprising that we think the same about the labour market.”
Miliband is now entering what one shadow cabinet member describes as “the most important period in the whole parliament”. The party’s final pieces of policy work – Andrew Adonis’s growth review, IPPR’s “Condition of Britain” report and the Local Government Innovation Taskforce – will soon be complete. Miliband’s task, and that of his shadow cabinet, will be to weave these threads into a narrative of national renewal powerful enough to overcome the sour pessimism of Ukip. To defeat the Purple Peril, Labour must once again paint itself blue.