The past week has seen front page stories on apparent disunity in the ranks of the Labour Party, as the leadership of Ed Miliband was questioned from various (largely anonymous) sources. Though the criticisms flying in are varied, they can largely be categorised in two ways: substance and spin.
For many Labourites, the election of Ed Miliband rather than his older brother David is still seen as a catastrophic error, particularly for those on the Right of the party, for whom the Blair-Brown years represented both an intellectually and politically coherent position for Labour to win elections and more importantly, govern. After four years of the current leadership, many observers are puzzled by how quite few Blairites have been persuaded by Ed. In fact it would have been far more surprising if they had rallied around him.
At the center of the Blairite/Labour split is a disagreement about the purpose of New Labour as a concept. To those on the Left of the party, the slogans about moving to the center, or ‘Looking Forward with Traditional Values’, were exercises in politicking, but not statements of actual belief. While some of them accepted the changes to Labour’s message, they only ever did so in an attempt to win an election, not out of conviction.
In contrast, those in the Labour Party who embraced Blairite policies and rhetoric – shockingly enough – actually believed in being a center-Left political party. Despite the claims of superficiality and spin, those on the Right of the party are just as ideological as those on the Left, they simply believe in a more moderate set of principles.
Ed Miliband and those around him have never understood that. They have always argued that the grumblings from the Right are from those who think Ed is bad at spin, not wrong on the issues. As a result they have been completely unable to persuade the Right of the party to truly support his leadership. From ignoring the deficit as a political issue, to waving off concerns over immigration, and taking an increasingly isolationist and dovish foreign policy, on every major issue that concerns the Right of the party, Ed Miliband has failed to engage in a meaningful way.
Although Blairites remain extremely skeptical of Miliband on policy grounds, in the current Labour Party they do not represent a majority. The number of critics has been bolstered, however, not by people with policy disagreements with the leadership, but by non-Blairite members who are appalled by the inept campaign instincts and communications skills of Ed Miliband and his team.
From the bacon sandwich disaster, to the off-the-cuff conference speech from hell, to the basic fact that most people who meet Ed Miliband or see him on TV think him weird, there is plenty to criticize in terms of the PR instincts of the current Labour leader. Although he is fond of acknowledging his weakness in front of the camera, rather than inoculating him from criticism, all that has done is to serve to remind voters of his lack of charisma. With the lowest net approval rating of any party leader since Michael Foot, it is simply undeniable that Ed Miliband is a hindrance rather than a help when it comes to securing a Labour majority.
At the time of writing, it appears that the Miliband leadership will limp on despite grumblings and internal criticism. The reason for that, however, does not stem from some strength or confidence in Ed as a Prime Minister-in-waiting, but rather because there does not appear to be a Labour heavyweight prepared to take the plunge and try and bring him down.
Labour are sleepwalking to a possible defeat in an eminently winnable election. Should it come to pass, the reason will be because no major party figure had it in them to throw the first stone, and help to dislodge the millstone around their neck.
By Phillip A. Gardner