Has Ed Miliband's luck finally run out?

The Budget made clear how much stands between him and No. 10

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

29 March 2014

9:00 AM

Ask anyone in Westminster about the obstacles to a Tory victory in next year’s election and you’ll hear a well-rehearsed answer. The constituency boundaries are so ancient that Labour can win on a far lower share of vote; Ukip is eating into the Tories’ base while the coalition has united the left behind Labour; being beaten by Ukip in the European elections will send Tory MPs into a regicidal frenzy. By contrast, Labour appears to be holding itself together; its problems are hidden well below the waterline.

But that’s changing. The Budget has brought the political tide out, revealing some of the rocks on which Ed Miliband’s hopes of office could be dashed.

The first of these is the increasingly tense debate inside the Labour party about the nature of the party’s manifesto. In May 2012, Miliband took control of Labour’s policy review away from the former management consultant Liam Byrne and gave it to Jon Cruddas, a former academic. This, one of his boldest moves, guaranteed that the policy review would offer more than just technocratic solutions.

Cruddas promptly set about thinking how to reinvent the relationship between the state, society and the individual for the 21st century. But there are those in the Labour party who worry that he is thinking too big. They fear that the policies he will propose will be too radical, that they will provide targets for the Tories and the press to attack. They would like his review to be kicked into the long grass as soon as it lands.

This explains why 19 influential Labour thinkers sent a letter to the Guardian warning that the party must not try and play it safe at the next election. The letter-writers’ message is that there will be consequences if Cruddas’s policy review is ignored, or watered down beyond recognition. The fact that Cruddas’s close ally, Maurice Glassman, has signed the letter is a sign that Cruddas himself is concerned about how the leadership will respond to this work.

Those close to Miliband dismiss the letter as a ‘bonfire of straw men’. They argue that Miliband doesn’t want a cautious manifesto and so the authors’ concerns are misplaced. I’m told that there was nothing in the letter that Miliband himself couldn’t have signed up to. But the danger he faces is ending up with the worst of all worlds, with the establishment and businesses convinced that he’s a dangerous radical who must be stopped, but his own supporters unenthused.

The Labour leader’s next worry should be the wiring of the party machinery. Miliband’s Budget response was poor. But he had an excuse: he had to respond to it as soon as it had happened — it is an almost impossible task, one at which few opposition leaders have excelled. But what should concern him is how little of the Budget was unpicked by Labour in the hours and days after it was delivered. Considering that both Balls and Miliband are former Treasury special advisers, and ought to know every trick in the book, one would have expected Labour to excel at such forensic work. But for some reason, they did not. The sum of the three teams — in the leader’s office, the shadow chancellor’s office and party headquarters — is far less than that of its parts.

This problem was compounded when Ed Balls let in too much daylight upon the magic, revealing things about the leader’s operation that would have been better kept secret. He told journalists how Miliband had prepared chunks of his speech based on what had been speculated about on Twitter that morning, and that these sections had then had to be junked when these educated guesses turned out to be wrong. This is quite credible. But it is foolish to admit it. By contrast, when George Osborne was shadow chancellor, his team always used to hint that he and Cameron had sources inside the Treasury, tipping them off as to what the government was going to do next. This, at the very least, had the effect of increasing Labour paranoia.

Which leads on to the broader question of what Labour’s election strategy should be. If you talk to those close to Miliband and ask them how Labour can win, you’ll hear several distinct approaches. All might be capable of producing a Labour majority. But they can’t work in tandem. As the Tories demonstrated in 2010, a party can’t run more than one general election campaign at the same time.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Labour is the recovering economy. Miliband himself has said that he expects wages to rise faster than prices this year, easing the ‘cost of living crisis’ that he speaks about. There is a real danger that his whole political argument could seem out of date in a year’s time. Indeed, with Labour’s lead in the polls already down as low as one point, Miliband can’t afford to see the political potency of his pitch reduced any further.

Those around Miliband dismiss this argument. They say that, while the coalition parties might get the benefit of the doubt about the recovery this year, it will be clear by next year that the benefits are going to the few, not the many. It is on this judgment that the election will turn.

It is far too early to count Miliband out. The electoral arithmetic is still heavily in Labour’s favour. Also, a strong Ukip performance in the European elections would undo all of the work that the Tory leadership has done recently to rebuild party discipline and morale.

But in the waters around Westminster something has changed. Osborne’s Budget has given the Tories a purpose again; they are the party of freedom allowing individuals to choose how to spend their pension pots. It has shown them a way to win back those elderly voters who had shifted to Ukip. Tory MPs are already enthusing about how well Osborne’s proposed pensioner bonds, offering 4 per cent interest rates, go down on the doorstep.

The next few weeks promise to be difficult for the Labour leader. Criticisms of his approach, currently expressed in whispers, will get louder should Labour’s poll lead disappear entirely. Miliband now finds himself needing a good set of results in May to calm his party’s nerves. If he can’t deliver that, or if the Tories avoid coming third in the European elections, then he’ll have to clamber over some very jagged rocks to make it to No. 10.

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  • Kitty MLB

    The idea that Miliband’s luck was dependant upon further disaster for this country
    is somewhat aberrant. That man is a dark eyed political vulture who flies around in the background waiting for victims, like he did his brother and he is also seen as
    one of the most weird leaders in modern history.
    Labour have no answers, are liars, will never reform or apologise, the nature of true dictatorship. Its also a utter disgrace that the treacherous Lib Dems did not
    agree with the boundary changes regardless of those being in their worthless manifesto. Also, UKIP as Nigel Farage said himself, are interested in Old Labour
    Voters, its not Conservative Voters, actually.
    Next year it will be about who we want running the country and that will not be Labour.
    And it also cannot in all seriousness be UKIP, they are still growing, Nigel cannot
    be all things to all men and he has already said he has no wish to be PM-
    his name is on the tin.. that is his one mission and a good one indeed.
    Milipede and Cleggie are both history.

    • telemachus

      Next year it will be about who we want running the country and that will not be Labour.
      Your erroneous narrative marches on
      What folk want above all is evidence that the good news that Tory and Media propaganda tell us on the economy has any bearing on their lot in life
      All they see is rising prices month on month while wages are rising so slowly as to be inperceptible
      At the expense of being boring this is compounded by Hunt telling them that the NHS is improving and safe in his hands while even the Mail and Telegraph scream daily about crises in Health organisation or delivery
      I admire the Spectator Ostriches

      • Kitty MLB

        The Ostriches are the Lefties around here. Silliband was about returning Labour to the working classes- Eh that worked.
        UKIP will take the Labour working class vote, as Nigel Farage
        said they will the other night.
        Admittedly your bunch played havoc for 13 years with this country,
        like a game of Russian Roulette and recovery was always going to take time, and we are making progress, regardless of your gerrymandering. You could have acted more responsible in opposition
        but chose not to. And the electorate, including Labour voters
        can see that and will not wreck the recovery by handing back
        the matches to the perpetrator who started the fire…say
        hello to Mr Bonkers Balls!

    • denise clendinning

      We don,t want the Tories back thank you

      • First L

        Yes we do. They are the only hope for this country.

        • max

          Ha, the only hope? You won’t be able to tell the difference WHEN Labour come into power. ‘The Tories’…. Hmmm, rings a bell.

          • First L

            When Labour return to power?

            Scotland has got to vote No first and that is no longer a certainty.

            Plus the British have kind of started to notice that Francois Hollande’s policies are pretty much destroying France.

            Plus Len McCluskey wants Miliband to move to the Left which would be political suicide.

            Plus Ed Miliband, after four years in the job, has worse personal polling than Nick Clegg and Labour are only 1 point in front of the Tories – i.e. a losing vote come 2015.

            As for telling the difference? 4 years and Miliband has yet to come up with a single policy worthy of the name that hasn’t dissolved in seconds or been funded by yet another tax on bankers (10 and counting). If somehow they do come to power, we will indeed see a difference. We’ll see a complete and utter economic disaster occur.

          • DavEd CamerBand

            You really are detached from reality, or “out of touch” as Labour PR would say.

            Labour will get elected in 2015, it makes no difference what happens between now and then. People would rather vote for a party with good intentions and bad policies than someone who represents “the rich”.

            Not to mention the fact that the Tories have lost an awful lot of their votes to UKIP.

  • Mukkinese

    It isn’t just Cruddas’s report a whole slew of policy review reports are due in a couple of months.

    As these are digested we will see a little more flesh on the bones of Labour policy.

    I would agree, if Labour and Miliband do not start to define a clear vision for the future, then the rightwing will fill that vacuum with their own nightmare scenarios.

    Keeping quiet on the lie of Labour spending was a big mistake, but they do not seem to have learned much from that mis-step…

  • Terry Barnes

    The problem with tides revealing dangerous rocks is that ships can steer clear. It all depends on whether the captain keeps his head. Will Ed? Let’s hope not.

  • MrVeryAngry

    Cruddas promptly set about thinking how to reinvent the relationship between the state, society and the individual for the 21st century. Really? If that is the core of his thinking then Labour has learned nothing. It needs to recognise that ‘socialism’ is a philosophy of moral and economic bankruptcy. Mind you ‘Toryism’ is not much of an alternative. Sooner or later one of these numpties has to realise that the old left / right paradigm is dying – it’s probably already dead – and what has been put in its place is one or other client state, i.e. a set of clients that suits labour or the tories, and that, ultimately is doomed to fail us all.

  • John Smith

    Why is it a surprise that leaving peoples money in their own pockets is popular? Added to by allowing them to spend it as they see fit.
    More of this next year

    • berosos_bubos

      Aren’t more people than ever in the 40 % rate ?

  • Saddo

    The budget showed 2 things that if continued to be executed well by the Tories, will give Miliband nightmares.

    1 The pension move is the first of a few big actions the Tories can take that bind individual voters to them. As the polls show, cutting down on welfare spending is very popular, but its not quite the same as the direct threat to your individual pension that the Tories will now be able to paint Labour as. Regardless of Labour’s weak support for the changes, everyone with a pension can remember Brown’s wrecking of final salary schemes and will have to weigh up the risk to their own pension if Labour get back in.

    2 Crosby’s message machine completely through Labour with misinformation about what the budget would include. In the media age, the ability to confuse the opposition cannot be under estimated. Expect to see the results of more evidence of Labour being played up to May next year.

    • John McEvoy

      ‘completely through Labour…’ (sic)
      I see why you’re called ‘saddo’.

  • Blazenka Hudson-trograncic

    So Labour will produce a manifesto that Foot or Benn would have been happy with, 1983 redux.

  • hdb

    “and gave it to Jon Cruddas, a former academic”

    Something of an overstatement. Cruddas does have a PhD from Warwick in Industrial Relations and even briefly taught somewhere in the States for a couple of years. In reality he has worked as an MP or for the Labour Party since 1989 which is long enough to consider him a career politician rather than an ‘academic’.

  • Ali

    Yes, it seems so, he’s lost it, unlucky Ed, you should have let David Miliband rightfully lead the Labour party, but fortunately for the Conservatives, undue ambition got the better of you.

  • Colonel Mustard

    “Cruddas promptly set about thinking how to reinvent the relationship between the state, society and the individual for the 21st century.

    I pay my tax and the state uses the money to run the country. I choose how I interact with society and society evolves through the free interaction of people. That is all. No social engineering or manipulation by any politician required. Not for them to define my “relationship” with the state or any other “relationship”.

    Get out of our lives and take your third sector fake charities and quangos with you.

  • derekemery

    Labour has never been pro investment in the private sector because the private sector is seen as part of the problem and almost criminal. All labour policies are about borrowing or raising taxation to spend in new areas that appeal to whoever is in charge. The Lib Dems are virtually identical to Labour in that respect. What is the mansion tax but a Labour policy of tax or borrow and spend spend spend.

  • Steve Read

    …”the treacherous Lib Dems did not

    agree with the boundary changes”.

    Surprised if the Tories don’t start attacking the Libs on the basis that they do not believe in democracy

  • Terry Field

    Labour has two massive advantages, the first being the absurd boundaries that make it feel like pre-1832 Britain, and the second the vast hordes of the wilful, uneducated, not-really working who will vote for their leftie pork – barrel political suppliers.
    Milliband and Balls are the soul and the future of this broken land.
    That is why England is finished.

  • Mukkinese

    More “whistling in the dark”. Miliband has done a remarkable job in keeping his party on track and on message over the past four years. This continued desperate idea that they will fall apart is indulging in wishful thinking…

  • denise clendinning

    Kell kittty your in for a big shock . Dream on