Labour has turned into a party at war with itself

The way it conducted last week's election campaign showed deep divisions and poisonous rivalries

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Morale at the top of the Labour Party is so low that the factions are preparing to blame each other for defeat in a general election that is nearly a year away. You would have thought that they would have more pressing business to deal with, such as blaming each other for Labour's disappointing show in the local and European Parliament elections last week. But, no, the party is capable of fighting a civil war on two fronts at once.

Hence the headlines in The Times on Friday, "Knives out for Miliband", and the Daily Mail yesterday: "Shadow Cabinet turn on Miliband". I know these are Conservative newspapers – The Times increasingly so of late – and that the criticisms of the Labour leader were mostly anonymous, but any Labour supporter who thinks this is an invention of the Tory press needs to be disabused. I understand that these headlines were a pre-emptive strike by people who thought they were going to be blamed by Ed Miliband's office for failing to pull their weight. I was told that Shadow Cabinet ministers feared "an aggressive attempt to go after the people who haven't done the Kool Aid" if the election results were disappointing.

Wait a moment, though. Didn't Labour do well in the local elections? It won control of a lot of councils in London and gained 300 seats. The short answer is no. For the party to be just two points ahead of the Conservatives in the BBC's projected national vote share is "not good enough". It was no coincidence that it was Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, who said so on TV on Friday.

Before the polls had even closed on Thursday, I was being told of "Operation Blame the Shadow Cabinet". Unsurprisingly, members of the Shadow Cabinet thought that this was outrageous because they thought Miliband had run an "All about Ed" campaign. He did no joint visits with Balls, or Harriet Harman, the deputy leader, and few other Shadow Cabinet ministers – and they thought this was precisely what was wrong with it.

Some of the basics of the campaign were all right. The organisation on the ground was adequate, and there were well-timed and popular policy announcements on security for tenants and GP appointments. But there was the "silly poster" accusing David Cameron and Nick Clegg of raising VAT on food, which is VAT-exempt. There was the embarrassment of Miliband not knowing who Labour's leader in Swindon was in an interview on the local radio. Worse, when he was told who Jim Grant was, Miliband said that he was the leader of the council, when Labour was in opposition – which he should have known because Swindon was a Labour target (which it failed to win). Someone should have briefed him beforehand, but he takes the blame for going into it unbriefed and then trying to bluff his way out of it.

Similarly, it would hardly have been important that he didn't know how much his family spent on food, but he pretended he did and then tried to explain away his error – the £70 to £80 a week was on "the basic groceries, the basic fruit and vegetables", he said. Nor, in a rational world, should the photo of him eating a sandwich affect whether people see him as a potential prime minister, but somehow it summed up a week bereft of hap. Someone should have prevented it, but he should have known better. It was his equivalent of his brother's banana moment.

Talking of which, the bill for fratricide is finally being presented. Ed Miliband said in his London Evening Standard interview this month: "I've always said to Justine, there's no point going for this if it's not about something deep and I feel I have got something to say that other people are not going to say, including David." That is now exposed for the ideological narcissistic indulgence it was. The question was never whether he had something different to say but whether he would win the next election.

It is too late now to repair the mistakes in policy and organisation. Some of Miliband's policies have been superficially popular, but they have failed to cut against the assumption that a Labour government would interfere, tax, spend and borrow more, and they are vulnerable to economic growth over the next year.

Last week's elections also exposed Miliband's organisational weakness. He failed to give one person sole responsibility for the campaign. Worse, he deliberately divided and ruled. There are two politicians in charge – Douglas Alexander and Michael Dugher – and a party official, Spencer Livermore. Alexander and Livermore are great enemies of Ed Balls, while Dugher is an ally.

These rivalries are more complicated than those of the Blair-Brown era. There are two main factions, both of them led by former Brownites, yet they distrust each other just as much as they distrusted the Blairites before. There are the Clappers, the sycophants around Miliband who applaud him back to the office after he has made another dreadful speech; and the Ballsites, who are working to ensure the succession of Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, after defeat in the general election. They are obsessed with Miliband's motives, saying that he is preparing for what happens if Labour only just falls short next year. "We know for a fact that he'll try to stay."

I think this is a paranoid misjudgement: if Labour loses, Miliband will be out before anyone can ask themselves why they ever thought he could win. But it shows Labour's problem: that, a year before an election, its leaders are preparing for defeat.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul

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