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Luckily for Ed Miliband, Labour is not as ruthless as he is
Another good Labour conference speech may boost ratings, but it is the day-to-day combat that will decide who occupies No 10
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Jonathan Freedland
The Guardian, Saturday 21 September 2013 05.58 AEST
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'Miliband's one nation address last year was excellent, forcing many in the political class to take a second look. The trouble is, quality speech-making is now taken to be a given for Miliband; he cannot surprise twice.' Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
They might be gone, but they still cast a giant shadow. Once again the Labour party gathers for its annual conference suffering from a bad case of the TB/GBs, the followers of the once mighty Tony Blair and Gordon Brown pulling on their torn and stained battledress for yet another civil war re-enactment.
At least a dozen Labour conferences began this way, the two sides locked in a combat more bitter and consuming than their struggles with the Tories ever were. And yet, the memoirs of Brownite Damian McBride and the email dump of Blairite Benjamin Wegg-Prosser have not quite brought the old poison to the boil, riveting though they are for those of us with PhDs in New Labour studies.
They do raise the awkward question for today's leader of how much he knew of McBride's dark materials, but otherwise these are accounts of wars fought long ago, slipping fast into history. Reaching for his rose-coloured spectacles, one senior shadow cabinet minister reckons dredging up all this muck might even help, serving as a reminder that "we've come a long way from the era of Blair and Brown". There's no denying that the current Labour team is the very picture of unity and self-discipline by comparison.
And yet the party hardly meets in Brighton full of cheer. It might not miss the internecine bloodletting of the New Labour years, but it does miss the power. And right now, the prospect of it is looking elusive. The problem is the numbers, of both the polling and economic variety. The former are anaemic, Labour's lead shrivelling; the latter are improving, the latest showing the UK borrowed less in August than expected. If once Eds Miliband and Balls could hope that an apparently never-ending recession would discredit the coalition and return Labour to office in 2015, they have to think again. They face a Conservative party whose morale is boosted by its belief that a recovery is under way.
Labour's optimists have an answer to both concerns. On the polling, they refer to the history books, which suggest governing parties never increase their share of the vote, and to the electoral map, which requires Labour to scrape not much more than 35% to form a government. In other words, Cameron can't improve on 2010 and Labour does not need to improve all that much (though gaining a 5% swing is no cinch). Its best hope is that Lib Dem refugees who fled the party once it partnered with the Conservatives stay with Labour, and that ex-Tory Ukip voters stay similarly loyal to their new home, rather than returning to David Cameron. If all those stars align, Miliband might just end up in No 10.
As for the economy, a few good headline figures do not rattle Labour's treasury team – yet. For one thing, they believe they are in tune with a public who say, regardless of the data, "It doesn't feel like a recovery to me." Labour will continue to talk about living standards, about high prices, low wages and zero-hours contracts – helped by concrete policies such as the just-announced promise to scrap the bedroom tax – casting George Osborne as out of touch for suggesting the economic pain is at an end. Labour reckons Osborne has played into its hands, claiming premature credit for green shoots that are all too fragile. "This recovery is now his," says one close to the top. "If it goes wrong, he owns it."
But there is a larger topic, which hovers over every Labour conversation, even if it remains "unspoken", as McBride might put it. The polling numbers remain stubbornly awful on the question of the leader himself. On too many key measures – strong leader, best candidate to be prime minister – Miliband lags far behind Cameron. His defenders offer a variety of responses: that British elections are not presidential and leaders don't matter that much; that Ed has shown great boldness, even ruthlessness, taking risks on Murdoch, Labour's trade union link and Syria, to say nothing of that initial contest against his own brother; that in the end, personal charisma counts for little, it's substance that counts. That last line was offered from a veteran Brownite who used to say the same about his former master. When I reminded him of the fact, he had the good grace to wince.
Those prepared to admit the problem offer a range of remedies. Among the more outlandish, one Labour frontbencher's whispered suggestion that Labour copy the Tories' 2003 despatch of Iain Duncan Smith and installation of Michael Howard: in this version, Miliband would give way to Alan Johnson, an elder statesman who would put up a respectable fight in 2015, creating a platform for a leader from the new generation after that.
Others say what's needed is a really good speech from Ed on Tuesday, providing the definition and clarity so far missing. His "one nation" address last year was excellent, forcing many in the political class to take a second look. The trouble is, quality speech-making is now taken to be a given for Miliband; he cannot surprise twice. A first-rate performance will help, but it won't move the needle. It's in day-to-day combat, forcing his way into the national consciousness, that he needs to do well and where he has so far had only intermittent success.
Realists in the Labour high command implicitly acknowledge the problem by promising the 2015 campaign won't be all about Ed. They suggest Miliband emphasises the team around him – though, I'm told, that is an approach he is yet to approve – and advances a simple core message: "David Cameron just wants to run the country, Labour wants to change the country." Couple that with good, on-the-ground organisation, cultivated by US-based organiser Arnie Graf and a smart online team, boosted by new recruits from the Obama digital operation, and Labour will do better than you think.
It sounds good when you hear it, but Labour folk with long memories will feel edgy all the same. They remember the narrow poll leads Neil Kinnock enjoyed over Margaret Thatcher before the 1987 election, his adoption of new and slicker campaign techniques – and the thundering defeat that followed. Some of this angst has been noticed across the Atlantic. "Labour party finding fault with its leader," ran a headline in Thursday's New York Times. "Were Mr Miliband a Tory leader with similar ratings," the paper reported, "he would be subject to a possible putsch. But Labour has little tradition of dumping its leaders."
That's true. In this at least, Ed Miliband is rather lucky – he leads a party that is not nearly as ruthless as he is.
Twitter: @Freedland
Article history
Politics
Labour conference · Labour · Ed Miliband · Tony Blair · Gordon Brown
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