Beating the blues

Ed Miliband has accomplished much over the past two years. The battle to win a majority in 2015 will open a new phase in his leadership, writes Steve Van Riel

For the last two years, wherever Ed Miliband has chosen to focus his political energy he has had a great deal of success. Nick Clegg’s progressive credentials have been wrecked beyond repair, and from this Miliband has won Labour a poll lead. Left-of-centre activists and interest groups who were never comfortable with Labour in office, won over by anti-cuts campaigns and Miliband’s personal stance on phonehacking, now lend the party their energy with enthusiasm rather than reluctance. On the economy, Miliband and Ed Balls have established beyond question the extent to which they disagree with George Osborne’s approach and the fact that they would do things differently.

These tasks have been accomplished so effectively that everyone who might be persuaded by them, has been persuaded by them. No one still thinks that Clegg will stand up to the Tories when it matters. No one is out there thinking, ‘Well, a double-dip recession was fair enough but a triple-dip would have been too much.’ I was once described as a Labour ‘attack dog’ by the Mail on Sunday so it pains me a little to say this, but I doubt any Labour attack on David Cameron, Osborne or Clegg launched between now and polling day will make any difference to whether Labour wins or loses. That phase is over and, for the most part, Miliband has achieved what he set out to do by this point. As well as Labour gaining voters from the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have dropped in the polls, though that has been largely because of former Tory voters who now say to the pollsters ‘don’t know’ or that they will vote for the United Kingdom Independence party. The overwhelming focus of the next two years must be on Labour itself: what we are offering the country and why the public should believe us. The metric for Labour’s next phase is the number of 2010 Tory voters that can be won over to Labour in 2015.

As Peter Kellner makes  clear in his special report for Progress, the Tories and Liberal Democrats have sitting MPs in the battleground seats, giving them a significant local advantage that does not tend to show up in national polls. The outline of a marginal  Tory MP’s re-election strategy is already becoming clear: run as a non-partisan local campaigner when it comes to public services – joining any passing protest campaign even against Tory-run councils – and only talk about national issues when building dividing lines on welfare and immigration.

Many of the seats that Kellner mentions have yet to get a Labour candidate. Members in those seats have to think about candidates with the credibility and experience to take on a sitting MP who will already be trying to set the local political agenda. They will need obsessive doorstep campaigners who are also pleasant enough to persuade ‘lazy Labour’ types (I am one) to ruin our next hundred weekends knocking on strangers’ doors

Finally, Labour’s candidates in these seats need to be ready for those dividing lines. Welfare, crime and immigration are sometimes less policy issues than questions about who you care most about. Candidates have to avoid the classic Labour mistake of saying that because an issue is not very important in public policy terms – such as the small number of genuine fraudsters in our welfare system – that your take on it does not say something important about you, and who you care about.

On 26 June Osborne will announce his planned public spending figures for the next parliament. He is aiming for a three-sided trap. If Labour accepts Osborne’s numbers, its anti-cuts rhetoric becomes problematic. Labour could suggest a slower pace of cuts, but we have tried making that argument in a general election campaign before. Labour could promise to raise taxes, but all the tax increase proposals that Labour has made so far have been politically pain-free charges on the wealthy. To get more money may only be possible with tax rises that hit a broader section of the population.

If Labour does not want to answer the question – and there are good economic reasons why 2013 may not be the time to do so – then the party needs another way to prove to sceptical voters that it can be trusted on the deficit. The best alternative is to set out some politically controversial Labour spending cuts: ones that Osborne has backed away from. The first party to propose cuts to benefits for wealthy pensioners will take a political hit from those groups affected. But, precisely because of this, if Miliband and Balls took that risk, no one would be able to accuse them of failing to take tough and unpopular, but ultimately justified, decisions on public spending.

The third challenge is convincing people that Labour’s leadership team could run the country. As a communications task, showcasing how ‘in touch’ or thoughtful you are is much easier than somehow demonstrating to the public that you know how to run things. How Miliband runs the Labour party itself should also be a chance to display the skills needed to govern – at the minute, it is the only organisation he has influence over. Processes that demonstrate seriousness to non-aligned commentators can make a difference. For example, creating an Implementation Unit designed to plan Labour’s transition into office. Even after a global market crisis, when Labour tried to run in 2010 with lots of economists but almost no business endorsements, it hurt us badly. With David Miliband now having left British politics, there is all the more need to develop some of the shadow cabinet into ‘big beasts’. But to do that they have to be given leeway to define their own distinctive approach to politics, in support of Ed Miliband but with different emphases and styles.

Miliband himself could start to talk about how aspiring to be prime minister has changed him, made him more serious, made him worry more about North Korea and less about the National Executive Committee.  Miliband handles such issues well in the parliamentary chamber but most of his activity outside the House of Commons emphasises ‘left versus right’ more than ‘right versus wrong’. Visits and speeches that emphasise problems without dividing lines, such as security, crime and international relations, may not get the same coverage as bombastic attacks on the government, but over time they will shift perceptions and filter out through expert commentators. Such ‘Prince Hal’ moments – named after the last scene of Henry IV, Part II where the new king demonstrably grows up by dissociating himself from an old, wayward friend – could help shift some of the personal polling numbers that Kellner refers to. These are important to make a Miliband-led Britain something that UKIP supporters are not so terrified of that they forgive Cameron and return to the Tory fold.

While Miliband has two years to do all these things, from this September I would expect it to get much tougher. The Tories’ attacks will sharpen and the media will start to report them. Toughening and interrogating Labour’s policies and leaders in the next few months is the only way to guard against that onslaught. Some of today’s most radical supporters will realise how moderate Miliband’s policies are and may start the traditional race to be first to accuse a Labour leader of betrayal. Managing the expectations of some of the people Miliband has won for Labour will be a delicate process but is better handled now than in the last days of an election campaign – or worse, the first few days in office. Sixty-eight gains at a time when the government has put up taxes, reduced spending and presided over weak growth should be completely possible for Labour. If we cannot do it, we will only have ourselves to blame.

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Steve Van Riel was the Labour party’s director of policy and research at the 2010 general election

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This article is from the May 2013 edition of Progress, and was first published online on the Campaign for a Labour Majority website

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