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Challenges for the Labour Party in the Conference, for the Leader and in the Year Ahead

Submitted by on 16 Sep 2011 – 09:57

Robert EvansRobert Evans, former MEP and Chairman, European Parliamentary Labour Party

John F Burns of the New York Times wrote recently of a stunning reversal in fortunes’ for Ed Miliband, the leader who ‘seemed to find his voice’ in the phone hacking scandal and lay the foundations for Labour’s long haul back to power.

When a Labour leader gets written about in America, it is a sure sign not just that he is being taken seriously but that the Conservatives are in trouble. Remember the appalling way that Neil Kinnock was treated on a visit to see President Reagan in 1986 ? Reagan was so close to Margaret Thatcher and the President did not wish to do anything to hamper her chances against a Labour leader just months before a General Election.

What is certain is that for 1986 do not read 2011. For Mrs Thatcher do not read Mr Cameron nor indeed for Neil Kinnock read Ed Miliband. The circumstances today are very different. In the opinion polls if nowhere else, Labour has bounced back from the demise of May 2010. The 29% the Party polled 16 months ago has become on average 40%, whilst Cameron leads not just a divided Conservative Party but a coalition Government held together by little more than the trappings of power.

By contrast Labour is buoyed not just by opinion polls, which have proved a false dawn too often in the past, but by half decent local election results in May and comfortable by election wins in Oldham, Barnsley, Leicester and Inverclyde.  In view of the circumstances that led to the first two contests,  the fall-out from the expenses scandal, Labour might reasonably have expected to take a knock, but instead it was the Conservatives and in particular the Liberal Democrats who were left licking their wounds.

Nevertheless, pollster Deborah Mattinson warned recently that Labour’s ‘rise in vote share in the polls is broad but not deep’ and mainly due to a fall in support for the LibDems. She also observed that Labour has much to do to regain the trust of the two key groups of voters, the elderly and white working class England.

Whilst Ed Miliband would be wise not to forget these groups, there are perhaps, other greater concerns on his plate. Despite polling over 50% in the Inverclyde by-election, Scotland is Miliband’s biggest worry. In 1997 in Tony Blair’s landslide, Labour took 56 out of 72 seats north of the border, but in the Holyrood elections earlier this year Labour managed a mere 15 constituencies as  Alec Salmond’s rejuvenated SNP swept to victory. With no leader yet elected to replace the outgoing Iain Gray, Scotland looks set to remain a major headache, not just for Miliband but for the Party’s new General Secretary, the Scottish born Iain McNicol.

Another headache could be the Boundary Commission’s proposals to redraw the Westminster map and reduce the number of seats to 600. However this could prove equally problematic for all parties. Many sitting MPs, but particularly the Liberal Democrats, will surely be wondering about their own future, under a totally different political climate. When it comes to one’s career and survival (or not) the chances of rebels voting with the Opposition, to defeat a curiously unnecessary bill, becomes ever more likely.

On the key areas of the economy and foreign policy, realistically there is little that Ed Miliband can do to influence events. Governments lose elections rather than oppositions winning them. But as Andrew Rawnsley noted in the Observer recently, ‘Voters don’t like the cuts. There are plenty of people, including respectable economists not of the left, who agree with Labour that the coalition is going too far, too fast.’

Rawnsley concludes that ‘Labour will not see power again until the party has won back its economic credibility’ and suggests that voters need time to forget about its record in office.  But if the economy does not turn the corner and unemployment stays stubbornly high with the mood remaining pessimistic, Clinton’s old adage of ‘it’s the economy stupid’ will once again be ringing loud. Then Miliband’s lieutenant Ed Balls can quietly refer voters to his alternative strategy and a wise party would start reminding the country about all the forgotten, but positive aspects of Labour’s 13 years.

Meanwhile, the European question remains a fault line running through the Conservative LibDem coalition. With even senior Tories such as former Chancellor Lord Lawson lining up with the sceptics urging Cameron to cut or loosen our ties with the EU, Miliband has the chance to be politically mischievous by playing on the Liberal Democrats antipathy to Tory policy. Whilst in view of the press hostility, and indeed the Party’s own ambivalence Labour seem unlikely to swing further towards Europe, the opportunity to open a clear divide between the two positions would be hard to resist. With the next EU enlargement due in 2013 when Croatia joins, any possible referendum in Ireland will prove a sideshow that will have Bill Cash and Co, jumping up and down, with UKIP calling for a similar poll in Britain. Cameron will avoid this, but Ed Miliband will surely do all he can to paint the Conservatives as out of touch with reality and the LibDems out of touch with the Tories.

Putting all these pieces of the jigsaw together is the key task for the Labour leader and his shadow cabinet. A senior Tory told me recently that he always thought Ed Miliband to be a real contender and that the Conservatives ought to be worried that Labour was managing a steady 40% in the polls when,  after a similar defeat, the Tories barely touched 30% for months.

‘We lost an election just over a year ago and our first task is to be a decent opposition.’ Miliband told the New York Times. Everyone likes a winner. Many hard line Tories blame Cameron for not winning outright in favourable circumstances. Now Barack Obama looks set not to be quite the easy second-term winner he was once thought, perhaps the reason for the New York Times’ interest is that John F Burns has identified Ed Miliband as a winner-in-waiting. Just one quietly playing the longer game.