Gerry Hassan: Conundrum as Miliband seeks winning formula

ED MILIBAND does not have to seek out his troubles – and much of it seems to come from his own side rather than opponents.
Labour Leader Ed Miliband. Picture: PALabour Leader Ed Miliband. Picture: PA
Labour Leader Ed Miliband. Picture: PA

This week, Len McCluskey, head of the Unite union, laid into Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander, claiming that if Miliband listened to them, “he’ll be defeated” and “cast into the dustbin of history”. Worse, George Galloway endorsed Miliband for prime minister – just the sort of thing to scare off marginal voters.

Labour’s poll ratings are, on average, 9 per cent ahead of the Tories, producing a predicted Commons majority of 96 seats, but most people think Miliband’s party should be further ahead. The electoral system may aid Labour and hinder the Tories, but beneath the headline figures there is a lack of conviction in Labour. A poll says 
66 per cent of voters think Miliband isn’t ready to be prime minister, with only 24 per cent feeling he is ready. Only 12 per cent of the public thinks Labour is the most capable party to take tough decisions, while 48 per cent think this of the Conservatives.

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Many ask: what does Labour stand for now? Miliband has called time on the New Labour era, but embraced “One Nation Labour”, which has delivered one brilliant conference speech, but has yet to be fleshed out into policy. Miliband has time and again expressed his ambition of being an agenda-shifting politician following the example of Margaret Thatcher; shifting the centre ground, rather than being defined by it. But details have been few.

Post-New Labour, the party has identified the land Thatcher and Tony Blair built as part of the problem, along with British-American capitalism, but the interest in a more co-operative Germanic capitalism has not resulted in anything more than mood music. Part of the problem is coming to terms with the legacy of New Labour. To many left-wingers, it was the creation of a coup d’état in which a reactionary quasi-Thatcherite elite destroyed the party’s progressive traditions. To some – such as former party leader Neil Kinnock – Miliband’s election was a sign that “we’ve got our party back”. Yet New Labour’s genesis was a more nuanced one, grounded in the long and slow erosion of socialist and social democratic thinking from 1945 on. More recently, Labour under Kinnock and John Smith moved the party rightwards pre-Blair, focusing on making it respectable and unthreatening to Conservative voters and the City.

Then we come to Miliband’s “One Nation Labour”. This was clever positioning, but translating it into policy and strategy has been problematic. It seems to be trying to position Labour as a healer and unifier after the division of the coalition, but “One Nation Labour” doesn’t seem to involve being bold and taking on the new, vested interests who bust the economy in the first place.

Then there is the disunited kingdom. The UK operates at least four political systems, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland marching to an increasingly different beat to Westminster. It is even more problematic than that for England, which is increasingly divided into two nations. In northern England, the Tories only hold 43 out of 158 seats, while in the south outside London, Labour holds a mere ten seats out of 197.

New research from the Policy Exchange think-tank, Northern Lights, shows that voters in the south of England are now more worried about insecurity in comparison to aspiration, faced as they are with the twin pressures of minuscule to non-existent wage rises and falling living standards; so, there is an opportunity for Labour there.

There is behind all of this an even bigger question: who does Labour speak for? Previously, that was obvious: it was in the party’s name. Labour saw itself as the people’s party – the organised expression of working people. That gave the party ballast and strength when trade unions were powerful and represented half the workforce – although it also often gave it headaches when in office, as “In Place of Strife” and the winter of discontent showed.

Now trade unions represent seven million – mostly public sector – employees and individual party membership is well under 200,000, it is less clear who the party represents and how it balances its core support with winning enough votes to form an effective government. On issue after issue – banking reform, welfare, immigration, Trident – the party finds itself caught between its core vote instincts and winning over new, more-centrist converts; between the memory and lessons of Blair and breaking free from what many see as a fatal embrace. A recent Lord Ashcroft super poll of 20,000 voters showed that of the top four issues of concern – growth and jobs, welfare, immigration and cutting the deficit – Labour was ahead on only one, growth and jobs, and behind on the other three by significant margins. This when Labour had a sizeable national lead, and before the coalition upped the temperature on welfare. It may seem implausible to write this, but if the economy improves by 2015, then many fear Labour’s lead will prove weak and may vanish.

A deeper and longer problem could arise. The next election could see three unpopular Westminster mainstream parties face each other, with Labour’s core vote of 35 per cent enough under the electoral system to produce a Miliband premiership.

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While Labour supporters would welcome this, it would represent a government with a thin mandate and little room for manoeuvre to make difficult choices in hard times. It would be a government the forces of right-wing England would see as representing their interests, and on which they would wage vicious war.

Miliband is as far away from being a sea-changing politician as one could imagine, with his best prospects being a one-term prime ministership before the rightward march of English politics continues apace.

The tragedy is that he understands the conundrum: the limits of Labour’s appeal pre-Blair and the downside of the Thatcherite/Blairite consensus. Doing something about it would mean breaking from the caricatures of “Steady Ed” and “Red Ed” and nurturing an inclusive, radical coalition against the current political settlement. He wants to do this, but there is little sign he will embark on such a high-risk strategy.

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