Ed Miliband had no voice when he turned up at the Commons on Wednesday, cursing his luck because he needed a good performance at Prime Minister’s Questions after a miserable few weeks. It would look weak to cry off with a cold, but some aides thought it might be even worse to have a disaster at the Despatch Box.
Staff were sent to Boots to raid the shelves. Luckily for Miliband, his croaky voice lasted the course. He changed the music away from another fall in unemployment by revealing that Lord Freud, a welfare minister, had said that some disabled workers were “not worth” the national minimum wage.
The relief in Labour land was palpable. Miliband had a bad party conference and Labour almost lost a safe seat to Ukip in the Heywood and Middleton by-election. “We have been battered and bruised,” one Miliband loyalist admitted. His aides insist the Labour leader is not in denial about the hard road ahead. “No one is clearer than Ed that we have really significant challenges and problems,” one insider said.
One strong Commons performance will not allay the jitters and pessimism among Labour MPs. They extend to the Shadow Cabinet, some of whom appear to have their eyes not on the May general election but the Labour leadership election that would follow if the party lost. So Miliband used two private meetings this week to lay down the law to his party and demand total loyalty. He told the parliamentary Labour Party on Monday and the Shadow Cabinet the following day that victory next May was still in Labour’s grasp, but that the party could throw it away if it descended into internal sniping.
Douglas Alexander, the man in charge of the party’s election strategy, told the Shadow Cabinet why the election was still there for the taking. Labour’s private polling shows that 66 per cent of people are either not feeling the recovery’s benefits, or believe the country is still in recession. Ukip supporters are the most pessimistic about the economy. Only 9 per cent of women and 8 per cent of voters in the C2DE bottom social groups can “feel” the recovery.
Labour’s polling shows that many voters suspect the £7.2bn of tax cuts promised by David Cameron at the Conservative conference would be funded by cuts to services such as the NHS and education, or by tax rises for ordinary families. Labour’s plan for a mansion tax on homes worth more than £2m has the backing of 72 per cent of people, including 56 per cent of Tory supporters (and 69 per cent of people in London, where it would hit hardest).
This landscape points Labour to a “many versus few” campaign in which the Tories are portrayed as “the nasty party” standing up for their privileged friends at the top. But Miliband knows that Labour also has an Achilles heel – a lack of economic competence in the public’s eyes. His answer is to make the election a question about living standards and “which party will be best for me and my family?” It worked for Barack Obama when he trailed Mitt Romney on economic trust in the 2012 presidential race.
But the Labour leadership accepts that it needs a positive message of hope to win back working-class voters who have switched to Ukip. Labour must offer change that will help them, a balanced recovery whose benefits they will share.
Labour is behind the clock after wasting the opportunity offered by its conference. It wilted under pressure, a worrying sign with a marathon election campaign ahead. Wooing disillusioned voters left behind by globalisation ought to come naturally to Miliband, whose pitch is to rip up the free market consensus that has existed since 1979. As the Scottish referendum campaign showed, he is not connecting with Labour’s traditional supporters. “Our best hope would be to keep Ed off the TV,” said one senior Labour MP.
That, of course, is not an option. But Miliband could share the load more. His allies sometimes moan that the Shadow Cabinet is not pulling its weight. But shadow ministers reply that Miliband does not cut them enough slack, that their policy initiatives are either strangled by Ed Balls on cost grounds or reduced to a “lowest common denominator” by the Labour leader’s office, where several people have to be squared.
While Miliband tries to be “not Blair,” his internal critics claim he has reinvented the very “command and control” system that was New Labour’s hallmark. “Unity is necessary but it is not enough,” groaned one Labour frontbencher. “If we are not careful, it will be the unity of the graveyard.”
The good news for Miliband is that there is still time – largely because Ukip is causing even more mayhem in Conservative ranks. Labour is belatedly waking up to its own Ukip threat. It will not become “Ukip-lite”, but will paint Nigel Farage’s party as the extreme wing of the “nasty party”.
Labour will lose the next election if it treads water and hopes the roof falls in on the Tories. To win, Miliband and his party have got to become Bold Labour. His “radical and credible” mantra has resulted in excessive caution. As one shadow minister put it: “It is time to take some risks. The public are not listening to us. We need to grab their attention and make an impact.”
TV debates could serve a purpose – if they happen
The broadcasters will need to revise their plans for televised debates between the party leaders before next May’s election if they are to go ahead.
Unfortunately, the TV companies handed David Cameron a get-out clause by omitting the Green Party from the proposed line-up, while allowing Ukip to take part in one of the three debates.
The Prime Minister rediscovered his green credentials to argue that it would be unfair to include Ukip without the Greens. He is right, but is doing it for the wrong reasons. If we could put him on a lie detector machine, it would show that he doesn’t want to give Ed Miliband a leg-up to the platform he is on, or to risk being outgunned by Nigel Farage.
So the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 should include the Greens. Then, at least, Mr Cameron will have to find another excuse.
True, Britain’s first TV debates managed to eclipse serious policy discussion during the 2010 election. But they also engaged the public. It would be a terrible backward step to deny voters a close look at the party leaders when the gulf between them and politicians is so wide.
The debates should go ahead. Sadly, I have to doubt they will.
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