Is Ed’s head already on the chopping block?

Written By: Thomas Rainsborough
Published: May 23, 2011 Last modified: May 18, 2011

Following Labour’s rout in Scotland and the party’s inability to trouble David Cameron’s Conservatives to a serious degree in the local elections, the time has come to address two questions that no one dares to ask. Is Ed Miliband up to the task of leading Labour to victory? And is Miliband’s leadership being sabotaged from within?

Labour’s comprehensive defeat in Scotland casts severe doubts on whether the party can gain an overall majority at the next general election. The party’s competent but uninspiring results elsewhere in Britain also mirror the image that Ed Miliband has acquired since becoming leader. In the immediate aftermath of the regional, local and alternative vote referendum results, the sotto voce carping against Ed Miliband began.

While much of this comes from New Labour irreconcilables, the strong rumours that at least three of his frontbench team are considering walking from the Shadow Cabinet could yet set the narrative for Ed Miliband’s leadership.

Much will ride on how the party – and the media – judge his performance at Labour’s 2011 conference in Liverpool this autumn. But a big elephant trap awaits him next spring in London’s mayoral election. Should Labour’s Ken Livingstone lose out to Boris Johnson for a second time, which is a distinct possibility, the clamour for Ed Miliband to be replaced could become deafening.

There are some significant elements in the London Labour Party who are not particularly bothered whether Ken Livingstone wins or loses in May 2012. Some of them might actually prefer to see him defeated. Certainly there is little evidence of a powerful campaign machine getting behind Livingstone. This time he will be relying on Labour, rather than was the case in 2008 when the party needed  Livingstone to  its flagging fortunes more than he needed the party.

The Scottish election debacle is an ugly portent of what could happen. The party’s campaign was taken from the New Labour handbook: policy-lite with the accent on negativity. Telling the Scots that a vote for the Scottish National Party equated to a vote for independence insulted the intelligence of the voters. Alex Salmond offered a positive vision of the future and moved deftly into the social democratic space vacated by Labour to take its place as official opposition to the Conservatives north of the border. And now asking Jim Murphy to launch an “investigation” into what went wrong is the political equivalent of sending a quack doctor to deal with a heart attack.

Labour’s new leader was always going to face an uphill battle. The party’s performance at the 2011 general election was the worst since Margaret Thatcher’s landslide swamped Michael Foot in 1983. Party panjandrums had long ago decided that it was Ed Miliband’s brother David who should inherit the crown. Ed’s victory and the fact that it came courtesy of the trade union section of the electoral college was too much for them and the Conservative-leaning media to stomach.

Ed Miliband had few supporters in the Shadow Cabinet and a substantial number in the Parliamentary Labour Party who had supported his brother David. Not wishing to antagonise them further, the new leader set out to mollify them. He failed to move hard and fast against key elements of the party machine – still heavily influenced by former general secretary Margaret McDonagh. And he failed to make sure that an Ed Miliband loyalist became general secretary with immediate effect.

The first months of Ed Miliband’s leadership were marked by an openness and willingness to engage, and by the failure – thus far – to connect with the wider public. He has not shaken off the perception of him as wooden and scholarly, and he lacks the common touch. Whether David Miliband might have performed better in these circumstances is difficult to quantify. Professional politicians – those who are accused of never having had a proper job – have come to dominate all the main parties and Labour is no different. In any event, close observers report that Ed Miliband still sometimes appears shell-shocked, both at his leadership victory and the responsibility and burden now thrust upon him. They say that there are long periods when he simply doesn’t talk to people around him. Having invested rather more political capital in “the squeezed middle” than the most disadvantaged, Labour’s new leader has yet to define precisely what he stands for. There is a sense of drift.

Into this stasis comes “Blue Labour”. This is intriguing and, for some, a quite appealing attempt to undo the damage caused by New Labour’s aversion to the party’s former bedrock – the working class. Maurice Glasman, since ennobled by Ed Miliband, and Dagenham Labour MP Jon Cruddas are engaged in a political project that could pay some significant dividends for the Labour Party and its leader.

Whether this will be enough to ensure the return of lost voters north of the border is another matter. As far as some commentators are concerned, Blue Labour’s appeal is to the conservative (small “c”) working class. Does Ed Miliband see mileage in this? Will he put himself at the front of political initiatives such asthese that are aimed at re-connecting with Labour’s lost base?

Whatever he decides to do, he doesn’t have a huge amount of time left in which to do it. And, at present, we have to conclude that Ed Miliband is not capable of leading Labour to victory, especially as he appears to have allowed some of his internal opponents to tie his hands behind his back.