Ed Miliband faces the fight of his political life

The taint of trade union infiltration could be fatal to Labour’s election hopes

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Prime Minister’s Questions – often a boisterous affair – was downright rowdy this week.

The usual, rather testy David Cameron, forever on the brink of losing his rag, was replaced by a new version so brimming with élan it bordered on triumphalism. The explanation? Thanks to accusations that Unite has been throwing its weight around in the Labour Party, he could lambast the Opposition as “in the pay of the unions” at every possible juncture. And so he did, to roars of approval from his back benches.

In fairness, Ed Miliband fought hard, questioning the moral authority of a Prime Minister whose copybook is blotted by “dinners for donors”, “a tax cut for his Christmas card list” and, last but not least, hiring Andy Coulson, the disgraced former tabloid editor now on trial for phone hacking. It was a valiant effort. But the Labour leader never really stood a chance.

One lacklustre week in the Punch-and-Judy palaver of PMQs is neither here nor there, of course. But Mr Miliband’s travails are no simple matter of a performance. Nor is the Coalition’s new-found assurance restricted to Mr Cameron. Only last week, the Chancellor delivered a similarly sprightly performance, despite the fact that his Spending Review would not have been necessary had all gone to plan. Boosted by Labour’s acceptance of his fiscal logic and an economic wind set momentarily fair, George Osborne had quite a bounce.

This week, the economic clouds have lifted further. Statistical updates have revised away the double-dip and confidence appears to be returning to services, manufacturing and construction. It would be foolish to conclude that our troubles are over. But, in the short term at least, Labour’s case is ever harder to make.

Mr Miliband’s task was never an easy one. To rehabilitate a party after 13 years of government is always tricky; economic crisis made it more so. But there is also a wider issue here. In the post-2008 world of straitened public spending, where the long-term implications of ageing populations and global competition can no longer be hidden by expectations of continuous growth, the centre-left is struggling – not just in Britain but across much of Europe – to find a message that makes sense. For all that Mr Miliband is pilloried for his lack of charisma, circumstances are also to blame for Labour’s lack of definition.

There is an election to win, however; and the central challenge is to prove the party’s fiscal credentials to a sceptical electorate that has largely accepted the need for austerity. Inching closer to the Coalition’s plans was an unavoidable step. But there is further to go to restore trust, and a power-grab by the unions – accused of manipulating Labour selection procedures and bankrolling members – will not help. Is it any wonder that Mr Cameron is so gleeful, when he takes to the podium armed with a Unite strategy complaining “we give millions of pounds... and we get nothing back”, and calling for “a firmly class-based election”? With friends like these, Labour hardly needs enemies.

For Mr Miliband himself the danger is more potent still. Tagged “Red Ed” after a fratricidal leadership win reliant on union support, he has fought since to prove himself his own man. The Prime Minister’s bravura performance is just a taste of what is to come if the questions raised by the alleged shenanigans in Falkirk are not swiftly laid to rest. That means going public with the review of selection processes now under way. It also means new procedures, where necessary, to rid Labour of the taint of infiltration. From the bluster so far, the unions are all set for a fight. If either Mr Miliband or his party are to have a hope in 2015, it is one that the Labour leader needs to win.

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