Brian Monteith: Labour running out of time

Ed Miliband must come up with a plan to deal with his party’s poor showing, writes Brian Monteith

Labour leader Ed Miliband giving a speech in Chorley. Picture: PA
Labour leader Ed Miliband giving a speech in Chorley. Picture: PA

WHO would have thought that English council elections would prove so troublesome for all the mainstream British political leaders? Mid-term elections are always problematic for a party in government – and the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition is no different in that respect – but Labour has also suffered despite all the positive talk of steady progress being spun by its leadership this weekend.

On face value, considering the actual results, Labour has done well, gaining 291 more seats, but scratch the surface and one finds that Labour’s performance flattered to deceive. The party’s MPs and prospective candidates for the 2015 general election will be privately worried that the leadership is not doing enough to secure the national victory they crave. With two years to go before facing the electorate, any changes that need to be made to ensure Labour goes into an election campaign with an unassailable lead will need to be made no later than the conference season this October. Any later and it looks like panic – which can undermine confidence in a leader’s judgment.

Calculations suggest that the 226 council seats that fell to Labour did so because of Ukip splitting the Tory vote, leaving Labour with only 65 gains – a dismal showing for the main party of opposition at a mid-term election when the ruling government is running an austerity programme. Ukip also takes votes from Labour supporters, so we could expect that Labour’s real performance is somewhere between the 291 gains it is claiming and the 65 it won without help from Ukip. Even so, that’s still not good enough, it should be doing far better at this stage in the electoral cycle.

Research by Opinium and YouGov also sends warning messages to Labour supporters, for while the polling organisations put Labour ahead of the Conservatives by 10 points, the same samples also showed that of those polled only 30 per cent thought Ed Miliband would actually become prime minister. There remains a Miliband factor that Labour cannot shake off, for the leader also regularly polls behind David Cameron.

Could we end up with a prime minister that no one really wants; not the public (who prefer the party but not the leader), not the Labour MPs (who voted for the other Miliband and some are already jockeying for the next leadership election) and not the Labour Party (that still seems uncertain about what it stands for – New Labour, Old Labour, yet to be decided Labour)?

Murmurings from within the Labour Party about the council election results have already surfaced (Labour MP Graham Stringer condemned the results as “not good enough”) with the usual calls for new policies already voiced by John Mann.

Most of all Labour needs an economic policy that is credible with the public. Miliband’s admission that Labour would, after all, borrow more than the government – despite the huge borrowing run-up by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown that has given us the mother of all national debts – was an acknowledgement that the public had rumbled Ed Balls and his evasive answers.

It is forgotten that the Liberal Democrats lost seats in the 2010 general election – and on the current showing and with the reputation at as low a point as I can recall it – has the look of a dead party walking.

The Conservatives don’t have their troubles to seek either. There is genuine concern within the ranks that what needs to be done to lift the economy in time to secure an election victory has been held back by the coalition partners, while Ukip is able to make the populist attacks that would previously have been said by many Tory MPs and campaigners.

David Cameron’s pledge of a referendum on a renegotiated membership of the European Union has done nothing to dampen support for Ukip, which has skilfully linked other issues such as immigration and energy policy to EU regulations.

With the governing parties in such trouble, Labour looks like it is drifting to an election victory by default rather than being carried along on a wave of popular acclaim and positive support. At this point Labour supporters will take any general election victory, even if it is because they are the best of a bad bunch – but the difficulty is that the situation could change and at that point Labour could suddenly find itself behind and with no prospect of reversing the situation.

Ukip’s successes may just give the Conservatives enough of a rude awakening for them to become more strident and outspoken on issues where they think they are in sympathy with the public. For all Labour thinks it should own the welfare benefit issue, the coalition parties have shown that welfare reform can attract majority support and put Labour on the back foot. David Cameron will thus become more robust on Europe.

John Redwood has advocated a “mandate referendum” to be held next year to give Cameron a mandate for renegotiation – and others such as David Davis, John Whittingdale, Julian Lewis, Dominic Raab and Priti Patel are lining up to support it too. And John Baron continues to push for legislation that would ensure Cameron’s referendum would be held whatever the general election outcome. Baron’s approach is not just to tie Labour’s hands, but also to remove any doubts that Cameron could be trusted to honour his pledge – an key attack used by Ukip.

While a mandate referendum seems unlikely to find favour, Labour has yet to work out how it deals with Ukip – something it had better do soon, as it will be too late next year when it risks coming third again in the European Parliament elections and Nigel Farage’s party pushes the Tories into second.

Were that to be the result then it could trigger a reassessment by Conservative strategists of the need for a Tory-Ukip pact for the general election that could snatch Labour’s expected victory away. A non-aggression pact has already been suggested by Tory backbenchers.

Labour needs to think its way through the options on Europe and come to a decision soon, taking into account that advocating the EU referendum itself could neutralise any loss of votes it might experience to Ukip and keep it on track for a general election victory.