Polls go up and polls go down. This true, useful mantra for politicians is only used when the polls go down. Labour politicians found themselves saying it rather a lot before last month’s elections. The nervousness this engendered was repressed, but only barely.
In May this column noted that Douglas Alexander’s appointment as election coordinator left him exposed should things go wrong. This happened rather quickly, even before a single vote was counted. Yet it was for another group entirely that the decline in Labour’s lead was most uncomfortable. Ed Miliband’s true believers are facing their toughest test.
The genuine, unconditional believers in the Miliband project are a tight band. When Miliband takes the stage his musical director and lead guitarist is shadow Cabinet Office minister Stewart Wood, with speechwriter and long-time confidant Marc Stears on keyboards, supported by a chorus of leftish journalists and commentators, like Mehdi Hasan and George Eaton. They are a worthy, cerebral, somewhat boysy bunch. More prog rock than Old Labour folk or New Labour pop.
What unites them? They were alienated by the freewheeling liberalism of the Blair era, but chafed under the caution and fearfulness of Gordon Brown. In Miliband they saw someone with the moral purpose and political bravery to reject both in favour of a renewed, confident social democracy.
There are other Miliband loyalists. There are the politicians who hitched their star to Miliband’s wagon in the leadership campaign, and have prospered since, like Sadiq Khan, Rachel Reeves, Chuka Umunna and Emma Reynolds. But politicians are not natural sidemen. They might want to see their own name in lights one day. Then there is the political operation, the roadies and fixers of Miliband’s team, who have done an excellent job for their boss. But they could do that work for any leader, and many, being true party loyalists, have done exactly that.
No, it is the boys in the band who are at the heart of Miliband’s sound. Since he started his leadership bid, they have been told again and again that their strategy would not work, that they needed to conform, to do it the old way. They did not listen to that advice, and were vindicated.
Their confidence that there was an audience of progressives, disillusioned liberals, disaffected working-class voters and the young who could be enthused to the polls, saw them through every tense moment. The polls showed Labour ahead, and that was used expertly to push Miliband’s agenda forward. Producers, not predators. ‘One Nation.’ The cost of living. The hits kept on coming.
This works for just as long as the expectation of victory. If Labour lags, there will be demands for a different tune. One response will be ‘to get the message over better’ and stop such distracting cacophony. That lies behind the regular calls for members of the shadow cabinet to ‘step up’, to help Miliband deliver victory.
He himself has kept the faith. The Labour leader’s reaction to bad polls news was to turn it up to 11. He has talked about the NHS, increasing wages, stopping the abuse of workers, and being for the many, not the few. These are all messages designed to enthuse the progressive majority.
For the boys in the band, though, these are nervous times. They have staked everything on the progressive consensus. If it appears elusive, it is they who will be blamed. That is the thing about being a backing band. You share the glory, but there is always someone else waiting in the wings.
Truth and consequences
If Labour’s election results underwhelmed, its internal operation did a good job of soothing nerves, telling members of parliament and activists of successes and swings. But while most MPs have been silent, many are uneasy.
The result is tension at the top of the party, with conflicting critiques of Labour’s performance: some, like Harriet Harman and Ed Balls, feel they were cut out of the campaign; some in the campaign feel they have to assuage too many stakeholders; some around the leader feel shadow ministers did not put in a hard shift; and some in the shadow cabinet resent being briefed against.
It is unlikely this tension will amount to more than squawking, except for an intensely boring debate about a European referendum and discussing immigration.
The real fight is looming over the ‘offer’, with the campaign for a big, ambitious manifesto struggling against those who want to stress credibility and believability. Both sides will be trying to win Miliband’s ear over the summer, using the election results to boost their case. Stand by for an avalanche of briefing.
Labour’s best results were in London with cricket score council chambers, four members of the European parliament, and a pile of votes big enough to put Labour clear of the Tories nationally.
The happiest person in London Labour was Khan. He grabbed the London portfolio after Ken Livingstone’s defeat, and has used it expertly, associating himself with every victorious candidacy and campaign. His barely concealed campaign for mayor got a huge boost.
One troublesome council will pose Khan problems. Re-elected Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman will be agitating for his return to the Labour party. Many in the London party would be outraged at this, especially as Rahman has failed to say his former Labour opponent, John Biggs, is not a racist.
On the other hand, Rahman has a mandate and support on the National Executive Committee and in Unite. He could even conceivably challenge Labour for a Westminster seat. Should Rahman be readmitted? There is a tough call coming for the man who would be mayor.
Cartoon: Adrian Teal
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