Labour’s Mili-madness is over. Now what?

by Stephen Tall on November 11, 2014

Labour’s moment of Mili-madness is over: Ed will lead his party into the next election. Alan Johnson’s re-re-re-confirmation that he has no appetite for the job has thwarted any chances that he might be drafted into the post as caretaker leader to see his party through the remainder of the season.

It was a plan borne of desperation. Alan Johnson is admirable in many ways — he’s had a life before politics, he speaks human — but he has ruled himself out too often, too categorically, to be a credible potential Prime Minister. His is not the modest, aw-shucks-if-I-must reluctance of an ambitious politician who knows better than to look too ambitious: it is genuine. That many in Labour have been so keen to promote a man unwilling to be promoted says much about the incumbent.

Ed Miliband’s personal ratings are dire (as bad as Nick Clegg’s and therefore much more of a drag on his party than the Lib Dem leader is on his). Labour’s ratings are diving. In part, I feel sorry for him. It would have been hard for any leader to help their party dust itself down after the May 2010 result – the second worst in its modern electoral history – and to re-bound straight into office.

Yet he has not made it easy for himself either. His economic policy has slalomed between slamming the Coalition’s austerity drive and then occasionally backing it (eg, public sector pay freeze) while famously forgetting to mention the deficit at all in his September conference speech.

The supposed 35% strategy — bolting 6% of Lib Dem defectors to Labour’s core vote of 29% — was always risky, and made decisions such as the juvenile attack-ads on Nick Clegg even harder to understand.

And then there’s been the complacent underestimating of threats from the SNP (whose potency threaten a Labour majority, as I pointed out here last July) and Ukip (who may well establish themselves as the anti-Labour alternative primed for major gains in 2020).

Should Labour have ditched Ed Miliband? One answer is this: they should have done what their opponents least wanted them to do.

There is no doubt that the Conservatives are among the most enthusiastic of #webackEd supporters because they know David Cameron beats him all ends up on the leadership stakes. They will ruthlessly exploit his perceived weaknesses in the next six months, backed up their friends in the right-wing press. Cameron will likely try and avoid a televised leaders’ debate to side-step the risk that Miliband ends up surpassing low expectations.

BY that criterion, then, Labour should #backEd over a cliff. However, it would be a risk. First, because it’s far from clear any of his probable replacements would actually prove much better than him. And secondly, because Ed is the symptom, not the cause, of Labour’s problem. The central question was set out by the Labour blogger Hopi Sen in 2011:

To win again, we must confront the issue that Brown sought to elide, successfully as Chancellor, disastrously ineffectively as Prime Minister. What is the role of the progressive state when you are at the rough upper bound of state spending as a proportion of GDP that a market economy seems to find politically and economically acceptable? What is the progressive case in a fiscally conservative time?

Though Ed Miliband has tried to grapple with the problem, via wonky solutions such as pre-distribution, he has failed to offer a clear, compelling solution about how, at a time of austerity, Labour will deliver (apologies) a stronger economy and a fairer society. But have Alan Johnson or Yvette Cooper or Chuka Umunna got a better answer? Unless they have, it’s far from clear that switching the guy at the top will make a jot of difference, even if they can eat a bacon sandwich attractively.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.