31 Dec 2014

2014 was a year to forget for Ed Miliband – now it’s win or bust

Right. You’ve had the worst year of any leading UK politician since Harold Godwinson lined his troops up on the wrong hill at Hastings – so what better way to kick off 2015 than with a message about “new beginnings”?

That must have been the thinking behind Ed Miliband’s New Year message, posted on YouTube.

He’s posed in an open-necked shirt, but just in case that looks too interesting, there is a normcore round-necked jumper to complete the “boring young dad” look.

There is a Christmas tree – with presents still under it: maybe one of them was for Tony Blair and he didn’t turn up?

The core of the message is clear: Labour will raise wages, do something for young people, “set fair rules for immigration” and “rescue the NHS”.

And to those fine-tuned to Labourology, Miliband‘s words signalled a clear core vote strategy: the country will be run “in a different way, with a different idea, putting working people first”.

Nothing about the “squeezed middle” or “hard-working families”. Short of actually using the world “class” Miliband came as close as any Labour leader since Callaghan to actually meaning it.

The timing then, of Tony Blair’s interview with the Economist, looks unfortunate. Blair told the Economist it was likely Labour would lose the 2015 election because it was fighting as a traditional left-wing party against a traditional right-wing one, and that is usually the outcome.

Today Blair’s office has backtracked, saying he was “misinterpreted” and expects Labour to win in 2015.


But the whole episode goes to the heart of what Labour is struggling with. Let’s just enumerate the Miliband issues first:

– He forgot to mention immigration and the deficit in his conference speech

– He can’t eat a bacon sandwich

– He got photographed giving a beggar money on the street and looking like he didn’t want to do it

– He posed with the Sun newspaper then had to backtrack and apologise after a backlash on Merseyside over the paper’s role in the Hillsborough tragedy

– He sunk massive personal capital into the No campaign in Scotland, resulting in poll predictions of a wipeout for Labour by the SNP

– He had to sack close ally Emily Thornberry after her injudicious tweet about white vans and St George Crosses on election day in Rochester

Numerous Labour insiders believe he cannot connect with either the core voters he’s trying to mobilise, nor with the middle-class swing voters Labour traditionally needs to reach to win, and is possibly the worst person of all to try and lead a fightback against the votes labour is haemorrhaging to Ukip.

But the party’s problems go deeper than that. Beneath the surface, Labour is a punch-up waiting to happen. The party’s MPs in the urban north of England, where Labour’s core support lies, know their constituents cannot stand another five years of combined austerity and uncontrolled migration.

The unions – faced with a significant disenfranchisement under Miliband’s plans post-Falkirk – are not minded to go on funding a party committed to austerity.

Meanwhile, the Blairite wing of the party is on a quiet offensive against Miliband. Jim Murphy’s victory in Scotland, and Blair’s “nudge” in the Economist are just two symptoms of this.

On top of this though, the coalition is now split over the future scale of austerity, Miliband knows it remains a toxic issue for Labour.

So for Labour, 2015 is a win-or-bust year.

If the party wins, it looks like it will be narrowly and very likely with the SNP holding the balance of power. Then Labour would have to choose between a more radical autonomy plan for Scotland or getting rid of Trident as the price for SNP support.

If you think of the scale of cuts Labour has implicitly signed up to, there is no way the SNP is going to taint itself with voting for the first Ed Balls budget without extracting a major exemptions for Scotland.

Paddy Power currently has it on 4/1 for there two be two elections in 2015 – that is, for neither Labour nor the Tories to be able to form a coalition.

But if Labour loses, the forces of fragmentation beneath the surface are large: there is not exactly a plan, but more like an implicit understanding that the left and the Blairites will combine to get rid of Ed Milband if Labour fails to become the largest party.

Think a figure like Jon Cruddas or Tom Watson as deputy leader, with an as-yet-unspecified Progress frontbencher as leader.

The unions meanwhile, particularly Unite, are watching developments in Spain and Greece carefully: there the main socialist parties have been eviscerated by support for austerity and are now being replaced by young, trendy, left-wing parties whose leaders can not only eat street food but look cool doing so.

Though there is no British Podemos – yet – senior frontbenchers are already worried about Labour’s middle class and youth vote bleeding away to the Greens in two or three key constituencies.

Miliband’s only secret weapon is Ukip. It may look like Nigel Farage is a threat to Labour in some of its heartlands, but the electoral logic still looks more like Ukip will seriously damage the Conservatives in key constituencies.

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