Mary Dejevsky: Success for Ed Miliband could be a turn to the right

The premise that anyone else would do better against Cameron must be treated with caution

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Nowhere in the world are politicians and their friends in the media quite so quick to pounce on vulnerability as in Britain. And in so doing, they compound it. The latest victim is the Labour leader, Ed Mili-band, who has had a wretched start to the year, not because of anything he might have said or done – indeed the perception that he has not said or done anything features prominently among the charges – but chiefly because he has fallen below David Cameron in the opinion polls. And this has happened at a time when the Coalition is pursuing what the Labour mainstream sees as highly unpopular policies.

Yesterday, the chase seemed to pass a critical point when Maurice Glasman, an academic and Labour peer close to Miliband, challenged him to "show some leadership and courage" if the political dynamics of this year were to be different from those of the last. Writing in the left-wing New Statesman magazine, he said "there seems to be no strategy, no narrative and little energy" – sins of omission joyously recognised by Miliband-hunters everywhere.

Now it may be that Glasman has a case for objecting that his words were taken, in the celebrated phrase, out of context. What he actually said was that "on the face of it, these look like bad times for Labour and Ed Miliband's leadership", stressing that the reality was actually different. "The good news," he said, "is that he has" – shown leadership and courage, that is. The rest of the article was a dissection of precisely how. Whether Glasman feels misrepresented, however, or was using a little sleight of pen to get his critique across, the effect was to spur the attack dogs to greater slathering.

Nor is it an idle question to ask how far still-resentful David-groupies are behind the anti-Ed campaign. What is true, though, is that the Labour leader will need all his reserves of toughness to survive – the same toughness he showed when he decided to stand against his brother. The more urgent question is whether, even at this early stage, he has the stomach for it.

Yet it is also worth going back and reconsidering the premise. The belief underlying the Ed-criticism is that, 18 months into government-by-coalition, Labour should be doing better than it is, and the fact that it is not reflects poor leadership. But maybe this is not what it reflects. Maybe, as Coalition members, pleasantly surprised by their ratings, are starting to conclude, voters generally understand the need for austerity, still blame the last government for profligacy and feel, in particular, that Gordon Brown received far too little in return for his spending on health and the welfare state.

If indeed it is the relative popularity of the Coalition that explains the polls, rather than Ed Miliband's supposed incompetence and lack of charisma, then it is not a new leader that Labour needs, so much as new ideas. The premise that anyone else would do better against Cameron – and for anyone else read Brother David – has then to be treated with the utmost caution.

This is essentially what Glasman and others have been arguing in recent months, and what Glasman argued again in the New Statesman. But what these inside-Labour critics have not been able to give Ed Miliband is what Cameron managed to buy for himself when he first became Conservative leader: the luxury of time. So familiar a figure is Cameron as Prime Minister that it is hard to remember how fiercely he was criticised as a new Opposition leader for not having any policies, for farming contentious issues out to working groups, and then for referring or rejecting some of their conclusions. Or, as might be said, "no strategy, no narrative and little energy". From start to finish, this process took the best part of two years. Ed Miliband has been leader for just over 15 months.

And it could take Labour even longer to find some new policies than it took the Tories. At least Cameron understood that he needed some. For Labour, it is only really since the summer that the terrible realisation has dawned that voters are not as appalled by much of what the Coalition is doing as many Labour politicians think they ought to be. Even now, that recognition seems reluctant, and only tentatively absorbed.

The re-thinking is especially painful on issues such as public spending and the welfare state, where Labour has always assumed that it holds the moral high ground. Yet it is on the welfare state that most rethinking must be done. For if it is true, as it appears to be, that the Coalition has correctly gauged voters' tolerance for reforming benefits, or even underestimated it, what options does that leave Labour?

The Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Liam Byrne – he of the post-election note to his successor at the Treasury that there is "no money left" – is emerging as a leader here, inspired perhaps by his opposite number, the equally unlikely reformer, Iain Duncan Smith. The essence of Duncan Smith's reforms, however – which is to bring most benefit payments together into a universal credit, with a household ceiling equal to the average wage – does not leave Labour much room for manoeuvre.

The notion, in particular, that no one should be better off claiming benefits than they would be at work (and that includes big families qualifying for housing benefit) is one that is widely shared. Perhaps this is why the Government is not hammering it home as loudly and often as it could. But just imagine being a Labour minister trying to argue the opposite. It is noteworthy that the case for maintaining benefits at something like current levels is spearheaded by lobby groups, not primarily by the Opposition.

Byrne, Glasman and others are leading calls for an approach to benefits cloaked in terms of back to Beveridge. It includes scaling back means-testing and returning to a more contributory system, with the catchphrase "something for something". There can be little doubt that this would be popular, not least in Clegg's "alarm-clock Britain". But it would leave those who did not, or could not, contribute worse off.

This would be a risk. But if Miliband embarks on something of this kind, it raises the intriguing prospect of Labour trying to outmanoeuvre the Conservatives from what many would see as the right, just as Cameron trumped Labour before the last election by snatching the space for social reform it had vacated on the left. The success or otherwise of Duncan Smith's reforms could then determine not only the future prospects of the Coalition, but Ed Miliband's chances of success or failure, too.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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