With numerous voices questioning the ability of Ed Miliband to deliver Labour election success, two undergraduates enrolled in the ‘British Party Politics’ module offer their thoughts.
Three Problems Facing Red Ed
Being the leader of the Labour party against a Tory-led coalition government that is introducing vast cuts should be easy. But Ed Miliband has somehow managed to make the task very difficult.
One would have thought that being the leader of a centre-left party during a period of austerity would naturally draw support from across the electorate. Yet, according to a recent Ipsos-MORI poll, Miliband’s satisfaction ratings (30%) are lower than Cameron’s (40%) and only marginally higher than Clegg’s (28%). How can Miliband reverse his fortunes before the next election?
First, Miliband needs to get Labour supporters onside. According to another Ipsos-MORI poll, Ed’s current satisfaction rating among supporters of his own party is only 44%. To put this in perspective, Tony Blair’s ratings never fell this low, while Gordon Brown’s only sunk to this level during the height of the financial crisis. Importantly, Miliband’s ratings contrast sharply with those of Cameron, who is currently soaring among Conservative Party supporters at 79%. Miliband’s first priority should be to get the Labour faithful back on side. While he took the first step by attacking Cameron on his shambolic NHS reforms, such successes have been few and far between.
This leads us to his second problem: the absence of a clear vision. Cameron is clearly aware of this, for example reading out Alex Hilton’s post on Labour List during PMQs: “My problem is that you are not a leader. You are not articulating a vision or a destination, you’re not clearly identifying a course and no-one’s following you.” Nobody knows where Labour stands on cuts. Do they support the Tories as Miliband suggested in his interview with Andrew Marr, or are they opposed to them as his performances at PMQs would suggest? What is Labour’s alternative to the health reforms? What exactly would they do to the banks? Ed needs to find a way to present Labour as a genuine and responsible alternative to the Tories. The NHS seems like the best place to start.
Third, Miliband needs to find a way to reinvent the New Labour brand, continuing the work of his predecessors while not associating himself with past Labour governments. The New Labour project was hugely popular, but after three terms in office it (inevitably?) ran out of steam. Meanwhile, reverting to ‘old’ Labour will only push the party back into the wilderness. Somehow, Ed needs to make the party his own. The idea of responsible capitalism was a good way forward, but he has failed to build on this. To become the next Prime Minister, Ed needs a lot more of this.
Thomas Wheatley - 2nd Year Undergraduate studying for a BA in Politics
Emphasise Policy, Not Image
At the 2010 general election, Labour appeared detached from its roots, narrowly avoiding humiliating defeat by drawing into its heartlands. Some argued that 13 years of ‘New Labour’ had rendered the divide between Labour and Conservatives meaningless. Against this backdrop, one reason why Ed Miliband was elected leader of Labour was because he seemed to offer a distinct shift away from the exhausted and outdated concept of New Labour.
Yet the direction in which Miliband is now leading the party remains unclear, which is raising doubts about his credibility to lead Labour to victory at the next general election.
In many ways, Ed has begun to make a stance by speaking out against the coalition and challenging the bankers’ bonus culture. Yet this is not enough. Ed must assert himself and become more robust in order to take on potentially challenging elements within his own party.
Labour leaders have often faced this challenge. For Kinnock, it was the Militants. For Blair, it was Leftist members and Clause IV. Though initially dividing the party, these moves ultimately helped Labour connect with a wider British public.
Ed faces a different battle: a Blairite rump that remains in the party and continues to cause mischief, whether expressed in rumours of leadership coups or insisting on financial rectitude. But ‘cautious Ed’ is yet to make even the faintest sound against these challengers.
There is no doubt that Ed is a staunch socialist. However, he appears to have merely assimilated himself in the party’s existing structures so as to avoid any upset. Kinnock and even more-so Blair grabbed Labour by its roots, downplayed its legacy of socialist and economic failure and led it down a definite route of modernisation in order to connect with a wider coalition of voters. Yet 18 months into his leadership, Ed is yet to express any coherent strategy. As a result, ambiguities remain. Is he a Labour unifier? A Labour moderniser? Or neither?
Unlike past leaders, Miliband recognises that a future Labour Government may have to significantly cut back on public expenditure and utilise resources more imaginatively. He also appears committed, has advocated that his leadership will evolve and is reluctant to allow a lack of strategy or parliamentary blunders to tarnish his determination.
This current stance resembles that of earlier leader John Smith (1992-4), whose legacy is not easy to identify given the Blair leadership that followed. Smith was a moderniser, but his premature death in 1994 cleared the way for Blair to completely overhaul the Labour Party. Like Ed, Smith was prudent and appeared fearful of unnecessary objections, both internally and publically. Smith’s fundamental opinion was that party modernisation is not a state-of-being, it must instead be a progressive movement mastered by the aid of time.
Many feel that the problem with Ed is simply that he lacks the ‘Blair-esque’ charisma needed to inspire the electorate, and this weakness has meant he lacks the resoluteness to assert his own ideological vision. But, arguably, the main reason that Ed was voted in was because of his disassociation from Blair and New Labour. Ed must not listen to the siren voice of Blairites and think that performance and perception is all. He has already tapped into the national mood on Murdoch and big business, and rightly argues that the substantive content of policy should preside over image. For Labour, there is no turning back and there is no other alternative.
Labour needs a new direction which Ed can deliver through a clear socialist policy agenda. He might not be instantly popular, but by remaining committed to his principles he can become an evolutionary Labour Leader with Prime-ministerial credentials.
Charlotte Butterick – 2nd Year Undergraduate on ‘British Party Politics’