Ed Miliband is far from Labour’s only problem


Matt Gass takes a look at why Labour’s problems go beyond white vans, pink vans and Milibands..

Towards the end of last year there was talk of an effort within Labour to shift the focus from Ed Miliband onto his shadow cabinet. The fear was that Miliband’s low personal raring were hurting Labour’s chances in the general election, and showing off their range of talent would reassure voters that a Labour government would be a team effort and not a one man show.

In the past few weeks this approach finally seems to have succeeded, but not in the way Labour had hoped.

Shadow education secretary Tristan Hunt has been slammed first for tweeting that a teacher should ‘stop moaning’ and ‘do some work’ when questioned on the detail of his education platform, before questioning the teaching ability of nuns on Question Time. On Newsnight shadow (and former) health secretary Andy Burnham repeatedly failed to explain his policy on the NHS, simultaneously attacking private provision of services while refusing to say if he would restrict it. Shadow chancellor Ed Balls failed to name any business leaders who backed the Labour party, having instead to settle for ‘Bill somebody’. The shadow cabinet has never had a higher profile.

As isolated incidents, these would probably be drowned out in the noise of an upcoming election; but together they demonstrate that Labour’s problems go far beyond a struggling leader. None of the people are novices. Balls and Burnham are former cabinet ministers and Hunt is an accomplished historian who has seen a meteoric rise since his election in 2010. Nor are these comparable to former shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry’s and deputy leader Harriet Harman’s problems with white and pink vans respectively.

These failures weren’t personal: they came from trying to defend paper thin policy positions from an intensifying level of scrutiny. Hunt can’t elaborate his education policies because Labour assumed that anti-Coalition sentiment meant they didn’t have to. Burnham can’t give a clear policy on private provision because the rate under the coalition has followed a trend set while he was Secretary of State for Health. Balls can’t name business supporters because in the absence of hard policy, Labour is succumbing to anti-business rhetoric to fill the gap.

On issue after issue Labour has banked on getting into government by default and refused to set out a coherent vision for the country. Miliband deserves a large share of blame for this, but he is not the whole problem. Remove Miliband and the vacuum of purpose that has existed since May 2010 would remain.

This should expose one of the most common myths in British politics today: that Labour made the wrong choice picking Ed Miliband in 2010 and if only they had chosen David they would be on course for a comfortable majority in 2015.

This view is wrong, but not for the reasons you might think. The absurdity of four of the five contenders at the time having largely interchangeable CVs was noted at the time and it’s easy to forget that while David was seen as having more gravitas, Ed was seen as being the better– more human– communicator of the two. It’s not hard to imagine a similar bout of buyers’ remorse occurring if the other brother had come out victorious.

Had David Miliband won, he might have stuck with the more centrist-Blairite, pitch that had worked for his mentor and the left-flank of the party would be in open revolt. From opposition this would make the Conservative’s issues with UKIP look like a little local difficulty. He may not have survived it but at least it would have forced the kinds of debates a party needs after a divisive thirteen years in power.

Alternatively he may have taken the route Ed has: avoiding these battles and trying to please everyone while satisfying no one. It may have been done with more gravitas and less awkwardness but in the end it would leave Labour in the same position it is in now. The real secret to Ed Miliband’s survival is not the lack of credible replacements, but the fact that none of them has a desire for this either. This is evident that none of the key lieutenants are able to articulate what they are for and what they would do in government.

None of these are problems that would be solved by Ed’s removal, now or at any time in the past few years. The inherent structural problems would still exist and there seems to be no appetite for fixing them. A Miliband led majority wouldn’t solve them either, merely hardwiring them into government for the next five years.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattGass

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