Andrew Whitaker: Labour got strong leader after all

He’s been relentlessly attacked by the Tories, but Ed Miliband stands tall as Labour remains in the game, writes Andrew Whitaker

After ruling out a post-election deal with the SNP last week, Ed Miliband may talk even tougher. Picture: Getty
After ruling out a post-election deal with the SNP last week, Ed Miliband may talk even tougher. Picture: Getty

ED Miliband has been on the receiving end of some of the most vitriolic and personal attacks seen on a Labour leader in decades from sections of the media, and of course, the Tory campaign itself.

The clash in 2013 with the Daily Mail, which saw the Labour leader accused of smearing his father, the late socialist writer and academic Ralph Miliband, after the newspaper attacked him as unpatriotic despite him fighting in the Second World War for Britain against the Nazis, is just one example.

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From the outset, the Conservatives appeared to be ultra confident that the relentless shots fired at Miliband from the party’s self-styled “Wizard of Oz” – Australian campaign guru Lynton Crosby – aided by its attack dogs in sections of the media would be enough to see off Labour.

An attempt to contrast a confident and supposedly “competent” Cameron, oozing an Eton charm, with the inexperienced and geeky Hamptstead left winger Miliband was a key factor right-wing pundits and Tory politicians seemed to think would lead to the Prime Minister’s inevitable re-election.

The Tory strategists’ most recent attacks included a claim by defence secretary Michael Fallon that the Labour leader had “stabbed his own brother in the back” when he defeated David Miliband, the former foreign secretary, in his party’s contest to succeed Gordon Brown in 2010.

The longer the election campaign went on, the more likely it would be that Cameron would pull well ahead in the opinion polls, so went the narrative according to many centre-right commentators.

Labour’s leader would go the same way as Neil Kinnock and Michael Foot, themselves on the receiving end of relentless attacks from right-wing sections of the tabloid press in the 1980s and 1990s, and would not even be at the races come the final week of the election.

Yet it’s not gone quite to script for Miliband’s detractors, with the Labour leader in with a shout of leading the biggest party in the Commons by the end of this week.

Of course, it could yet all go wrong for Miliband and a late Tory poll surge is possible. His own team of strategists will know that the danger of a second successive election defeat is still a very real one for Labour.

But when Labour was defeated five years ago, in what was one of the party’s worst ever electoral setbacks, there were very few commentators who would have predicted that an unfancied and much-derided soon-to-be-leader would still be in the game with just a day to go until polling in 2015.

Historically, Labour had tended to implode in opposition, with the internecine warfare that gripped the party in the 1980s being a prime example and an ensuing 18 years in opposition after James Callaghan was ousted in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher. Labour also spent 13 years in opposition during a period that covered almost all the 1950s and the early 1960s, after the reforming post-war Labour government that delivered the National Health Service and Welfare State in the late 1940s subsequently fell from power in 1951.

Again the party was gripped by internal warfare and was only back in contention when Harold Wilson took over as Labour leader – actually winning four elections for the party.

In fact, it was Wilson who last presided over a swift return to power for Labour after the party was defeated in 1970 by Ted Heath, but then returned to office against the odds four years later.

So for Mr Miliband to even be in touching distance of winning back power for Labour after a one-term spell for the party in opposition goes against the grain when it is considered where the party was back in 2010, when Gordon Brown was deposed as Prime Minister.

Even Brown, who was on the receiving end of some scathing criticism, did not come close to having the same treatment meted out to him that Miliband has received.

But Miliband and his campaign team management will know just how finely balanced Thursday’s election really is, and the wafer-thin line there now is between victory and a defeat that would see Cameron walking back through the gates of Downing Street on Friday.

Cameron’s stark insistences that even an outcome that gave the Tories just one more seat than Labour would give his party an immutable right to govern make it plain that the stakes have been upped in the last few days.

There are also the veiled overtures from Nick Clegg to Cameron suggesting the Liberal Democrat leader is fully prepared for a coalition Mark II.

To bolster the potential forces that could be lined up against Miliband should he either emerge as leader of the biggest party or come close, there were the suggestions from Nicola Sturgeon that the SNP would be prepared to vote down a Labour budget, albeit this would not bring down the government.

Miliband will probably know that it’s almost certainly too late by now to do anything other than slightly mitigate the inevitable SNP landslide in Scotland.

But again, expect to hear a ramping up of Miliband’s language in the final straight of how this week we could see a large bloc of SNP MPs returned, but with David Cameron and Nick Clegg stood together once again in the Downing Street rose garden announcing more of the same turbo-charged austerity and semi-privatisation of the NHS.

Time and time again the SNP has suggested that it would help a Labour government, but it has advocated a vote for almost anyone but Labour, with suggestions that voters should back the Greens in England and Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru in Wales.

Not once has the SNP even suggested voters consider tactical support for Labour south of the Border in seats where Miliband’s party is best placed to defeat the Tories, despite its call to Labour-minded people to lend their vote to the nationalists as part of the “progressive” coalition it proclaims support for.

So with Miliband having upped the ante last week in insisting there would be no deal with the SNP under any circumstances, it’s possible the Labour leader will harden his language further in the final 24 hours before polling day, with a pitch to Scottish voters that a clean sweep of all the seats in Scotland could keep his party out of power and let Cameron back into power again.