Monday, 9 June 2014

Ed Miliband's Labour Party

Richard Hayton, from the University of Leeds, explores Ed Miliband's leadership and the issues he faces in the run up to the next general election.

In an interview reflecting on his time as Leader of the Opposition, William Hague recalled a conversation he had in 1997 with the new Prime Minister, Tony Blair:

The first thing we mused about was who has the hardest job, him as the Prime Minster or me as the Leader of the Opposition. And he said ‘you do’ at the same moment I said ‘I do’, and he was right!

The circumstances faced by Hague, having been elected as leader of the Conservative Party following 18 years in office and in the aftermath one of the most traumatic landside defeats in its history, were particularly inauspicious. The economy was growing, Labour had a huge majority, and the new Prime Minister was personally popular, enjoying unprecedented approval ratings. By comparison the conditions Ed Miliband had to confront following his election as Leader of the Opposition appeared rather more promising. In spite of Labour’s unpopularity the Conservatives had failed to secure outright victory at the general election, while a significant chunk of Liberal Democrat support looked like a soft target for Labour gains following Nick Clegg’s decision to coalesce with the Tories. The economic picture looked far from rosy, and the prospect of years of fiscal austerity looked certain to hit the governing parties in the opinion polls.

Yet over the past few weeks Ed Miliband could have been forgiven for reflecting on the old adage that the role of Leader of the Opposition is the toughest job in British politics. Having watched his lead slide to around 3 percent across most opinion polls, Labour’s advantage over the Conservatives was far too narrow for comfort in the local and European Parliament elections. As one commentator sympathetic to the Labour cause wrote:

It’s an epic understatement to say that today a Labour majority in 2015 looks far from certain today. Senior Labour figures may be on TV today claiming that this was a good result, but merely saying this was good doesn’t make it good. It wasn’t good. It was far from good enough.[1]

In the light of this and his poor personal poll ratings Miliband’s leadership inevitably came under renewed scrutiny. One ‘leading Labour figure’ complained to The Times that Miliband ‘looks weird, sounds weird, is weird’ and other Labour MPs queued up to vent their frustration about the party’s campaign and failure to tackle UKIP. Labour’s campaign undoubtedly failed to take off, and Miliband’s own part it was at times derided, as he seemed unaware of his own cost of living – his central campaign theme – and wrestled in vain with a bacon sandwich. Yet behind these difficulties on the campaign trail lie some more deep rooted problems for Mr Miliband. We can review these briefly across the fields of ideology, strategy and policy.

In ideological terms, Labour under Miliband has struggled to identify or articulate when it locates itself in the post-New Labour era.[2] At times the Labour leader has hinted that he possesses an inner radicalism, but he has neither demonstrated this cogently nor pursued the centrist path favoured by some of his senior colleagues consistently. The rhetoric of One Nation has not been fleshed out, missing the opportunity enliven Labour’s identity politics, particularly in relation to the England[3] - even though key confidants of the party leader have acknowledged this is the site of a yawning disconnect between Labour and much of its traditional support base.

The lack of a clearly delineated ideological outlook has unsurprisingly spilled over into a disjointed political and electoral strategy. George Osborne has set the parameters of debate in terms of austerity and engineered the economic cycle so that it is in sync with the electoral one, cornering Labour into the rhetoric of crisis just as the dominant discourse around the economy is one of relief that the immediate disaster is easing. With Labour still closely associated with the original financial catastrophe, rising confidence that living standards will improve has hit the party’s poll ratings. Disagreement between central figures in the Labour hierarchy over how to respond has led to a fragmented critique of the Coalition’s rhetoric which does not map onto a fully developed or confidently expressed Labour alternative. The party’s electoral strategy consequently appears to be premised on little more than boosting the core vote with disaffected Liberal Democrats and relying on the electoral system to deliver victory – the so called 35-plus strategy – but in the face of the continuing UKIP incursion this appears increasingly high risk.[4]

In policy terms, Miliband has scored some discrete hits, most powerfully on energy prices. His strategists have clearly been wary of outlining too much of the party’s policy offering too early, as retaining ownership of good policy ideas can be difficult. Some new policy ideas appeared in the recent campaign (on GP appointments for example) and big hints have been dropped about others, such as increasing the minimum wage.[5] However, a well-defined overall narrative is needed to link these together, to give them some collective purchase in the public’s mind. Without this, the best bits risk being picked off or neutralised by the other parties – witness recent Conservative attempts to co-opt the minimum wage into their story of economic recovery, or the government’s own moves on energy prices.

The outcome of the next general election is of profound importance to the future of British society.  Enormous questions about the future role of the state – what services it will provide, and how these will be paid for – remain almost totally unaddressed. The coming parliament will be crucial in determining the answers to these questions for the coming decades, and if it is serious about offering a socially democratic alternative to the current neoliberal consensus Labour needs to be shaping this debate. Ed Miliband now has less than a year to demonstrate he can rise to that herculean challange.

Richard Hayton is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Leeds. He is also the Convenor of the PSA Conservatives and Conservatism Speicalist Group, and the author of the MUP monograph entitled 'Reconstructing Conservatism'.




[1] Ferguson, Mark (2014) ‘Labour needs to make profound changes to win in 2015’, Labour List, 26 May. http://labourlist.org/2014/05/labour-needs-to-make-profound-changes-to-win-in-2015/
[2] Matt Beech and Kevin Hickson (2014) ‘Blue or Purple? Reflections on the Future of the Labour Party’, Political Studies Review, 12(1), pp. 75-87.
[3] Mycock, Andrew and Hayton, Richard (2014) ‘The party politics of Englishness’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 16(2), pp. 251-272.
[4] Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin (2014) Revolt on the Right, London: Routledge.
[5] See also the ongoing Labour Party policy review: http://www.yourbritain.org.uk/agenda-2015/policy-review/policy-review

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