This article is from the June 2012 issue of Total Politics
Good old Ed Miliband. I never doubted him. Mocked by some – not me – as the Adrian Mole of British politics, dismissed by others – again, not this correspondent – as a lame-duck leader, he’s emerged triumphant from his ordeal by local election. Thinking about it, maybe it was me who compared him to Adrian Mole and branded him a lame duck… Just candid friendship there, Ed. No hard feelings, eh?
Labour is a party if not reborn, then certainly on the up. Before 3 May, officials were privately hoping for gains of around 550 seats and a popular vote share in the region of 40 per cent. They were also hopeful of slowing the SNP juggernaut, primarily by staying the single largest party in Glasgow, hitting the Tories hard in the north, mounting a sustained fight-back in Wales and making tentative inroads in the south. Only London, where Ken Livingstone looked certain to be steamrollered by the Boris bandwagon, had been written off.
By and large, these optimistic predictions were realised, or even exceeded. The Conservatives were absolutely shellacked in the north, though they managed to hold off the challenge of Professor Pongoo, the penguin environmentalist who vanquished the Lib Dems. Labour seized back control of Cardiff and Swansea councils, as their estranged Welsh heartlands began returning to the fold. The gains in the south were good if not spectacular, with Labour especially pleased with its success in Harlow. “TOWIE – the only way is Ed,” said one gleeful official to me on election night, paying appropriate homage to that gritty fly-on-the-wall docudrama The Only Way Is Essex.
But the night’s highlight was Labour’s Glasgow victory. Ed Miliband, on a victory walkabout in Southampton, was so stunned he broke off his prepared speech to supporters to intone solemnly, “Friends, I bring news from Scotland”, which unfortunately made him look less like a PM-in-waiting and more like a 17th-century town crier.
One cloud blighted Labour’s otherwise sunlight horizon, floating over City Hall… but even it contained a silver lining. Livingstone’s defeat was a disappointment, but not an especially bitter one. “He’s not going to bloody do it, is he?” asked one anxious Labour MP at about 8pm on the Friday of the mayoral count, as rumours swirled that the former Greater London Council commissar could be poised for a spectacular comeback. That he didn’t was a relief to many senior party officials, including some around Miliband, keen to move beyond his divisive legacy.
So, a minor triumph for the people’s party. Or was it? Whisper it, but some in Labour’s ranks observed their party’s local election performance and were a little underwhelmed. To be fair, some of the discordant voices come from those who grudgingly accept that there’s now no short-term prospect of a Miliband leadership challenge. “The problem with today is it’s made it more difficult to get shot of Ed,” said one party insider.
But even those who do not hanker for a bit of old-fashioned regicide have concerns. The first is the worryingly low turnout. Labour had been hoping for an enraged nation to rise up and cast off the chains of its austerity-obsessed oppressors. Instead, the electorate appeared to be seized by apathy, or, more accurately, sullen resignation. It was quickly grasped by Miliband’s inner circle, hence his terse, if abstract, warning of a “crisis in politics”.
The second nagging doubt relates to Labour’s overall vote share – 38 per cent, compared to 31 per cent for the Tories, was respectable, but nothing more. And coming at a time when the coalition had been assailed by brickbats, pasties and jerry cans, there’s evidence that voters are still not comfortable transferring anger at the coalition to faith in ‘Her Majesty’s opposition’.
The most positive thing, from Labour’s perspective, is that the party hierarchy gets all this. A big winner from election night was Iain McNicol, Labour’s general secretary. Criticised for initially failing to impose his authority, McNicol plans to use the results as a springboard for pushing through radical reform of Labour’s organisational and campaign structures. Concurrently, Miliband is preparing to act on recommendations presented by Arnie Graf, one of Obama’s army of former mentors, on how to rejuvenate the party’s activist base.
But this internal reorganisation only represents a beginning. Labour still needs to address the vacuum in its policy development, especially its offer on the economy. It needs to construct a more focused political narrative. And – being candid again, Ed – it has to address the lingering doubts over its leader. When that’s done, then and only then will Miliband be able to say with conviction that the only way is Downing Street.
Dan Hodges is a Labour commentator