How long can Miliband snatch defeat from the jaw of victory before the party turns against him?
By Dr Matthew Ashton
2012 is likely to be a critical year for Ed Miliband and the Labour party. After the best part of two years of ineffectively heckling the coalition from the sidelines they both need to start making more of an impact.
All new political leaders have a honeymoon period that can last from a few months to several years. In Ed Miliband's case, his seemed to be over before it began as the moment he'd won the press immediately started speculating about his brother's future. Since then he's been dogged by fluctuating poll ratings, poor performances at PMQs, an inability to connect with the public, and appearing indecisive on a range of issues from the intervention in Libya to the public sector strikes. This is reflected in the fact that the media has spent so much of the past year openly talking about a possible shadow Cabinet coup. The news over the holiday period that he was again lagging behind Cameron means that such chatter will doubtless increase in the New Year. While Miliband and his allies will dismiss this as the usual Westminster gossip, there is no getting away from the feeling that Labour should be doing a lot better in this stage of the electoral cycle.
On the face of it Miliband has every advantage in terms of the political landscape. The government is facing some of the worst economic conditions of the post-war period along with mounting levels of social unrest. On a purely political level the cracks are beginning to show in the coalition as they snipe at each other in public. Add to this Liam Fox's embarrassing resignation, and Miliband should have more ammunition than he knows what to do with; yet time and time again he keeps snatching defeat from the jaw of victory when squaring up to Cameron.
Of course this isn't entirely Miliband's fault. Ever since the end of the Blair era Labour has been rudderless and drifting. While Blair's pragmatism won elections in the short-term, in the long-term it robbed the party of its ideological base. This was fine during the boom years but now it's become painfully obvious how short of substance the party has become. Miliband can't just rely on the coalition to disintegrate, or the economic conditions worsening, to sweep him into power. He needs to take decisive steps now to stop the political rot.
Firstly and most importantly the party needs a coherent agenda of policies. The Occupy movement shows that the rage over the bank bailouts and the growing level of economic inequality in this country has still not subsided. This anger transcends class, gender and race and if Miliband can manage to tap into it then it could prove a potent electoral force. Recent research shows that young people are more passionately interested in politics than ever before, just not in traditional forms of political activity like voting or party membership. Miliband needs to convince them that he's on their side and can offer them something more than just the usual rhetoric and broken promises.
Linked to this, he also needs to desperately work on rebuilding the party's grassroots. One of Labour's biggest strengths in the past has been their mass membership of loyal party workers willing to go out and canvas and campaign come rain or shine. Since the late 1980s the leadership has effectively allowed the grassroots to wither (mostly because the party at the local level tended to be significantly more left-wing than their MPs). Labour needs to spend less time worrying about spin doctors, sound bites and focus groups and more on the ordinary rank and file.
In the coming year Miliband also needs to improve his public performances, both in the House of Commons and on TV. Some of this can be done via hiring better script writers, but the rest relies on practice. The more crucial aspect is the likability factor. Blair had it, Boris Johnson has it in spades. If Miliband has it he's not done a great job of communicating it to the wider public. If it turns out he hasn't got it, then at least he needs to try to learn how to fake it.
Finally it could be argued that Miliband can't do all of these things on his own. He needs his shadow Cabinet colleagues to make more of an impact as well. At the moment I suspect the public could just about name Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper and Harriet Harman at a push. Where are the next generation of Labour leaders? Of course the trouble is if any of them do too well then it will immediately prompt press speculation of a potential leadership challenger. This leaves Miliband in an unfortunate catch-22 position.
The good news is that it's still three years to the next election which theoretically gives him plenty of time to turn things around. Unfortunately while a week is a long time in politics, in real terms three years can go faster than you think. If Miliband hasn't made much progress in any of these areas in the next twelve months then the discontent and grumbling from his MPs will only grow. The big question is, will they be willing to summon up the courage to act on it?
Labour has always lacked the Conservatives' killer instinct when it comes to removing ineffective leaders. They allowed Neil Kinnock to fight two elections in a row before deciding he wasn't the man for the job. Equally David Miliband refused to stab Gordon Brown in the back when he had the opportunity which might have removed their single biggest liability in the 2010 election. The Labour party need to keep a close eye on Ed Miliband's performance in the coming year; otherwise they could find themselves slouching towards yet another defeat.
Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.
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