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General Election 2015: Win or lose, Ed Miliband is not ready to govern

I do not believe that the Labour Party, with the exception of Ed Balls, is ready to govern

John Rentoul
Sunday 03 May 2015 00:00 BST
John Rentoul met Ed Miliband aged 23, remarking he was “bright, and put up a good fight for the utilities tax, but I was unconvinced.”
John Rentoul met Ed Miliband aged 23, remarking he was “bright, and put up a good fight for the utilities tax, but I was unconvinced.” (Getty Images)

Whether he wins or loses on Thursday, it is time to assess Ed Miliband. If he wins we need to know what we are in for. And if he loses, we need to know what he did wrong so that those who want a Labour government don’t do it again.

I first met him in 1993, when he was 23 and had just started working for Harriet Harman. We went for a drink at the Red Lion, the pub opposite the Treasury, and to a Chinese restaurant. I wrote in my diary: “He is bright, and put up a good fight for the utilities tax, but I was unconvinced. Funny how young people can be old-fashioned socialists.”

Remember where we were: Labour had lost four elections in a row, although the ERM crisis the previous autumn had damaged the Conservatives’ economic credibility and John Smith seemed well placed to fight the next election. I called myself a moderniser then: I was with those, such as Tony Blair, who thought that Smith’s “one more heave” was not enough. Blair argued that it wasn’t good enough for Labour to catch up to where it should have been at the election before: it would have to start again and try to leapfrog the Conservatives on to the centre ground.

That wasn’t Miliband’s view and, in its essence, his outlook has not changed. He is now fighting the 1997 election as if Smith had lived. He could win, just as Smith would probably have won, but Miliband’s attempt is being made in less favourable conditions. Labour would have to outperform the opinion polls by some margin to form a government that does not depend on the support of the Scottish National Party – Labour would need a four-point lead in share of the vote to have a majority with the Liberal Democrats.

I think that, if the result on Thursday is different from today’s ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday, showing Labour and Tories tied on 33 per cent, it will be in David Cameron’s favour. But I don’t know if that difference will be enough to keep Cameron as Prime Minister – the Conservatives would need to be four or five points ahead to avoid being locked out by a majority of Labour, the SNP and the minor anti-Tory parties.

What tilts the odds further in Miliband’s favour is the internal politics of the Liberal Democrats. Even if the Tories and the Lib Dems together have enough seats to re-form their coalition government, there would have to be new coalition negotiations and the result would have to be put, not just to Tory MPs and, separately, to Lib Dem MPs and peers, but to a special conference of Lib Dem members. That special conference has to approve a coalition by a two-thirds majority.

It would be hard to sell a new coalition, even if Cameron were to concede the entire Lib Dem manifesto and change all George Osborne’s spending plans. The Lib Dems would probably even vote happily for an EU referendum, which used to be their policy. But many Lib Dem activists are opposed to the very idea of another coalition with the Tories. Nick Clegg thinks he can persuade them, if you read between the lines of his interview with The Independent on Sunday today, and Cameron thinks Clegg can do it. But there must be a chance that they are wrong.

If Miliband fails to become prime minister, I won’t say I told you so, because I didn’t think he would come this close. But I stand by my view of five years ago that he was the wrong choice, and will take his defeat as a vindication of the eternal New Labour verities: elections are won on the centre ground; a party of government must understand wealth creation; voters are suspicious of tax, spend and borrow.

And if he does become prime minister, I will take his partial and compromised victory as a vindication of those same things. This may not come as a surprise to you, but I do not expect a Miliband government to be a success. Not just because it will need SNP votes to get its business through, although I think Nicola Sturgeon will keep up the pretence of being “constructive” at least until the Scottish Parliament elections in a year’s time. Not just because he cannot take decisions to save his life. But because he has fought a campaign to defend a better 2010: to “save” the NHS, abolish food banks and to make a flexible labour market less flexible again. When NHS underfunding turns into a full-scale trolleys-in-corridors crisis; when food bank use keeps rising; when official figures show the rich are getting richer – then Miliband will have little to fall back on.

I do not believe that Miliband is ready to be prime minister, or that the Labour Party, with the exception of Ed Balls, is ready to govern. But I have been wrong about him before. Perhaps we are on the threshold of 10 years of a blissfully successful “old-fashioned socialist” government.

Twitter: @JohnRentoul

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