Labour: Blue, New Or Led By The Wrong Miliband?

Labour: Blue, New Or Led By The Wrong Miliband?

Labour is, depending on who you ask, old, new, purple, blue, divided, united and refounded.

Seventy-five days after becoming Labour leader Tony Blair abolished Clause IV. Seventy-five days into Ed Miliband’s leadership he still hadn’t finalised his communications team.

Miliband’s ‘Clause IV moment’ - if you can call it that - took nine months to emerge. On June 25 , when Ed Miliband announced the end of shadow cabinet elections, and emphasised his resolve to win. “I am determined we are a one-term opposition”, he told Labour’s national policy forum.

Her Majesty’s loyal opposition has now been out of power for just over a year after its worse defeat since 1983. In 2010, after 13 years in power, the party gained just 29% of the vote – a fraction more than under Michael Foot, where the party polled 27.6%.

A year on, in May’s local elections, the signs were encouraging: Labour won back seats in northern heartlands, and took overall control of Wales. But Miliband himself acknowledged there was “more progress to make”.

There was Scotland, where the SNP took control of Holyrood in a landslide victory. Shadow Cabinet minister Tessa Jowell acknowledges it as “a catastrophic defeat”.

Then there is the south. In 1992 then-MP Giles Radice first warned the party of its weakness amongst Middle England voters in the pamphlet ‘Southern Discomfort’. Now in 2011 England remains the issue that won’t go away.

For many of its MPs, Labour will only win when it argues from the centre ground. Influential backbencher John Spellar says left-wing groups have not now tried to seize control of the party but warns “it’s happened with quite monotonous regularity in the past.”

“It’s only when Labour came back in line with its electorate in 1997, that was the fundamental refutation of Roy Jenkin’s gang of four thesis, that Labour could be saved”, he says.

Although a win in the 2015 election is “uncertain”, he is optimistic.

“Compared with our previous defeats I think the party has held together remarkably well and also that on a whole range of issues have been putting the Tory-led coalition government under very considerable pressure.”

Tessa Jowell, too, believes the party has to face “uncomfortable truths” about what the public want.

The majority of voters, she says, are aspirational. “70% of people think that they are middle class and they don’t see themselves as supporters of any political party.”

Those who self-define as middle class would send their children to private schools and buy private health insurance, if they could afford it. Labour, she believes, needs to understand that.

“These are the uncomfortable truths that we have to face. Labour needs to colonise that centre ground which is where the majority of people are.”

But Conservative MP Matthew Hancock thinks Ed Miliband does not have the power to perform that task, adding the party have “gone backwards” since the 2010 election.

“Ed Miliband comes across as a weak leader of a divided party. When Alastair Campbell is one of only two private donors other than the unions, that undermines their argument.

“I think it’s about authenticity. I think Ed genuinely is to the left of his party. He knows inexorably that he needs to be further to the right.

“The more he tries to do something on the centre ground, the more he looks completely inauthentic.”

Mr Hancock has a point. The whispers over Ed Miliband’s leadership remain, with those in the party who supported his elder brother’s leadership bid mourning what could have been. At an event organised by the thinktank Progress, one activist bemoans the state of his party. “Half of us are basically on strike”, he says. “People don’t hate Ed Miliband but they don’t want to knock on doors for him”.

As Ed Miliband attempts to turn his party into a movement, some remain equivocal, unwilling to offer him their full support but reluctant to turn on him.

Mark Ferguson, editor of grassroots Labour website LabourList and a supporter of Miliband acknowledges members want more direction from their leader.

"I think there's the growing realisation that opposition is incredibly tough, and we're in this for the long haul. I think there's a sense that while people understand why Ed wants a long and deliberative process of party and policy reform, we also need a bit more direction. It's time for Ed to more clearly put his mark on the party."

Ferguson feels that the rather than the centre ground, economic policy will decide the next election.

"Labour's biggest challenge in the run-up to 2015 is to restore our economic credibility. That will be a long and difficult process, but the economy is what will decide the next election, so we need to be ready for that, or we'll lose."

But despite the party’s challenges, there’s hope. As Labour matures in opposition and recovers from the psychodrama of the Blair-Brown years, and the fratricide of the leadership contest, they are 8 points ahead of the Conservatives in YouGov's latest poll.

No one knows the shape Ed Miliband’s party will take as this parliament progresses; if the polls will continue to look up as the country reacts to the spending cuts. No one knows if Labour will be blue, refounded, stay new, or return to the infighting of old. But as Tessa Jowell says it’s “an exceedingly exciting time for progressive policy on the left.”


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