DESPITE the recent attacks on the Labour leader, he is well-positioned to return the party to power, writes John McTernan
Ed Miliband has been getting a lot of unsought advice recently, not least from my colleague Brian Wilson in these pages yesterday. My advice to Ed? Take it all with a pinch of salt – you are going to win the next election. The mid-point of this parliament has passed and the electoral settings are fixed. Labour’s dominance is secure. Why am I so certain?
First, the polls. As soon as he was elected Labour leader, the party’s support in the polls consolidated at 38 per cent. This is significant because it marks the return of the “Iraq War refugees” – they were parked with the Lib Dems until Labour’s regime change. With a new generation in charge, they came back home. And Nick Clegg’s decision to go into coalition with the Conservatives – a decision no other post-war Liberal leader could or would have made – has cemented these “refugees” to Miliband.
Further, it is higher support than either major party received in 2005 or 2010. In the former election, Labour were elected with 37 per cent of the vote; in the latter the Tories became the largest single party on 36 per cent. It is a mark of the long-running crisis of confidence in Britain’s major parties that, by the time of the next election, it will be 14 years since any party has won more than 40 per cent of the vote, and 23 since the Tories have. After a period in 2010 when David Cameron broke the 40 per cent barrier – though only achieving slim leads over Miliband – Labour has broken away. A lead of 6-8 percentage points has been the norm for nearly 18 months, while Cameron has been held below even his 2010 election result for this period.
There are those who scoff. They say Labour’s lead isn’t enough. They variously call for Ed to be more left-wing, more Blairite, bolder. Anything. Just act. This pessimism, borne of bitter Labour experience under Neil Kinnock, makes one big mistake – this is the 21st century. This the second reason for Labour optimism: there is a new electoral battleground.
The last Tory majority government still won seats in English cities outside London, and in Scotland. Those days are as long gone as the poll tax. And Labour faces an opponent being eaten on two fronts, including by an insurgent Ukip – tempting them to veer to the right, as they are doing on welfare. Cameron’s narrow margin as the largest party at Westminster was gained by a relentless centrism. The difference between being a centrist and a right-wing party is the margin between victory and defeat. Further, the coalition partners will slug it out in the seats they contest. In a Labour-Tory marginal, Lib Dem voters will support Miliband. In a Tory-Lib Dem marginal, they will support Clegg. Double danger.
The third factor is the type of leader Miliband has shown himself to be. It’s a gruelling task to be leader of the opposition. The main public platform is Prime Minister’s Questions and Cameron is a very strong performer. He never bested Blair but he had the measure of Brown, two formidable parliamentary performers. Nowadays, he still knocks Ed about a bit, but Miliband is finding his groove.
Anyway, perhaps Margaret Thatcher is a better bench-mark for Ed. She was not highly regarded as a political performer and she limited her political programme to the slim, but admittedly brilliant pamphlet The Right Approach, but she had ruthlessness and strategic patience. These are two fundamentally important characteristics of successful leaders and Ed shares them.
The public wants a prime minister tough enough to make the right calls. This cannot be truly tested until you hold office. Miliband passes the test with flying colours; he had one chance to seize the leadership and he took it.
Faced with the growing evidence of the deep-seated problems in the News Limited (formerly News Corp) empire, he made a big call and condemned Rupert Murdoch before it was clear that he would not bully his way out of the scandal. And faced with the problem of unions stacking Labour Party selections, he has made the reform that even Blair could not deliver – he is breaking the link with trade unions.
As for strategic patience, just look at Ed staring down the commentariat. They want new policy. Why? Well, it’s not for the good of the Labour Party, they just want some new copy. Anyone who has worked in government knows just how wonderful it is when the opposition prematurely comes out with new policy. If it’s any good you can steal it, if it’s weak you can shred it.
In truth, Ed has been quite clear about the shape of his philosophy. The big brush strokes have been made. He’s fighting to reward the squeezed middle, to rescue the lost generation and to restore a British dream. These can be coloured in nearer to an election. But these are already evocative slogans – ones that are value driven, and the next election will more than anything be about values.
Cameron has lost his way because he has forgotten the lesson he and George Osborne learnt painfully in opposition. When he proclaimed that he would let sunshine have the day, Cameron was appealing to a deep-seated emotion among British voters. They wanted, once more, to feel that their – and their nation’s – best days were ahead of them. This is not simply a matter of numbers – pledging to increase jobs, or raise real wages or even grow the economy. It’s more basic than that. Voters want to believe that Britain can be great again. Emotional patriotism and economic optimism have been thrown away by the current government. They are there for the taking. Ed Miliband has the numbers, and the field is clear.
• John McTernan was, until recently, communications director to then Australian prime minister Julia Gillard. He was political secretary to prime minister Tony Blair