The Real Struggle in Labour Isn't between Factions, but between Red Ed and Moderate Miliband

By Eaton, George | New Statesman (1996), July 4, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Real Struggle in Labour Isn't between Factions, but between Red Ed and Moderate Miliband


Eaton, George, New Statesman (1996)


The Labour Party, Harold Wilson once remarked, is like a stagecoach. "If you rattle along at great speed, everybody is too exhilarated or too seasick to cause any trouble. But if you stop, everybody gets out and argues about where to go next." No one can claim that Ed Miliband has stopped. Since the 2013 Labour conference, he has announced policies at a rate that Westminster historians agree exceeds that of any recent leader of the opposition. Yet everybody is still arguing about where to go next.

Turn left, turn right, stay straight: Miliband wakes each day to contradictory advice from party grandees. Absorbed by the deadly cycle of comment and countercomment, Labour MPs fear a repeat of last year's summer of discontent.

If the party is divided over where to go next, it is partly because the journey has taken so long. By this stage of the parliament, a general election would usually have been held, or be imminent. But as a result of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act introduced by the coalition, the date has been rigidly fixed at 7 May 2015. With ten months remaining and the Damoclean sword of a snap election removed, the arguments go on. The uncertainty surrounding the outcome next May, amplified by the modern innovation of daily opinion polls, breeds further tension. "We know what it looks like when a party isn't going to win after one term. We're not in that place," says one Labour strategist, contrasting the progress made by Miliband with William Hague's unambiguously doomed leadership. "But we're also not in a '97-style position." As long as this remains the case, Labour figures have every incentive to offer unsolicited advice. Even Miliband's loudest detractors believe he has a plausible chance of becoming prime minister. Peter Mandelson says, "The electoral arithmetic is probably on his side." Maurice Glasman declares, "Labour can win under Mr Miliband."

The internal ructions ultimately reflect a more profound question: which direction is the driver going in? Of all the criticisms made of Miliband in recent weeks, the one that has stung most is that voters don't know what he stands for. The Labour leader is a man who prides himself on his ideological clarity, contrasting his "intellectual self-confidence" with David Cameron's equivocations. Yet the truth, wearily relayed to the leader by MPs and activists, is that few voters know how Britain would look different under a Labour government.

This is partly a reminder of what the Conservative peer Daniel Finkelstein calls "the universal law of politics": most people, most of the time, don't listen to anything said by any politician. If Miliband is fortunate, the majority of voters may have heard of his energy price freeze, but he should assume little more. This is why Labour MPs are so troubled by his poor personal ratings and by the party's perceived lack of economic credibility. A shadow cabinet minister tells me that he fears future policy announcements will sound like "white noise" to voters who doubt Labour's basic fitness to hold office. …

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