Miliband faces continuing battle for heart of Labour

Wed, Oct 3, 2012, 01:00

ANALYSIS:The Labour leader gave a fine address. But many challenges face his party, writes MARK HENNESSY

IN 2010, and again last year, the British Labour Party gathered for its September conference still bruised from the defeat that had sent it into opposition after 13 years in power. This week, as party delegates assemble in Manchester for another annual conference, Labour has yet to present itself as a party ready to resume office.

Putting the final touches in the Midland Hotel to his conference speech early yesterday, party leader Ed Miliband will have been disturbed by polling figures from the London Independent that put Labour just three points ahead of the Conservatives, despite all of its main enemy’s own woes.

A poll is just a poll, of course. However, the trend in all of them holds dangers for Labour. It is ahead, sometimes by as much as 10 points or more, but it is not ahead by enough to give comfort that it can win a majority when voters are next due to go to the polls in May 2015.

In his speech, Miliband sought to “humanise” himself to voters, with stories about his parents’ flight from Nazi persecution of the Jews and his schooldays at a north London comprehensive, which he contrasted with David Cameron’s days in Eton.

The strategy may not work, but it is necessary. Every poll suggests that voters not only do not warm to Miliband, but they are actively turned off by his often-remote demeanour, even if that does not reflect the reality of a man who can be engaging social company.

Though voters believe that Cameron is arrogant and sometimes smug, the prevailing opinion, such as one exists at all, about Miliband is that he is weak. Depending on how much of yesterday’s speech seeps into the British consciousness, Miliband may have done much to change that perception.

In truth, it was a triumph, or close to it. Its impact on the public remains to be seen, but it jumped its first hurdle, reassuring any Labour doubters gathered in the Manchester hall that they had chosen the right man two years ago. The speed with which the audience rose in applause is proof of that.

This week’s conference marks the mid-point of the UK parliament’s life, one where Labour has been keen to emphasise what it would do to spur growth in the anaemic British economy, along with protestations that it would be fiscally responsible if once again given power.

Some of the measures put forward, however, were fantasy economics – the spending of £4 billion raised from the sale of 4G mobile telephone licences to build 100,000 new houses is a plan to spend money that will, most likely, long since have been allocated before the next election.

Despite everything – the failure of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat plan to have growth returning by now on the back of two years of cuts, or the bungled budget by chancellor George Osborne in March – the Conservatives are still more trusted on the economy than Labour, according to polls.

Some of the voters’ disaffection with Labour, but an immeasurable amount, is down to the residue left from its days in office, and in particular over its failure to adequately regulate the City of London as it went on a binge.

If Miliband has issues outside of the party, he also has difficulties internally; particularly with the flexing of muscles by the trade unions which played such a decisive role in his leadership victory over his brother, David, an issue that retains its fascination for many in the party.

The hours leading up to the conference were marked by a series of trade union leaders putting down markers in colourful, often mildly insulting, language, making it clear that Labour had to abandon its support for the effective three-year pay freeze affecting state workers.

This the leadership does not want to do, lest it feed the image conjured up at every opportunity by the Conservatives that Labour post-Tony Blair is once again a creature of the unions, evoking fears that worked so well for Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

In the end, despite the rhetoric, the trade unions did not place their foot on the throat of Miliband, because an amending motion was carefully neutered with the unions’ acceptance in the backroom conversations that have been a feature of Labour conferences in times past.

In his speech on Monday, shadow chancellor Ed Balls, ever regarded as a political bruiser in the tradition of Gordon Brown, went out of his way to avoid a fight with the unions, failing entirely to deal with the pay freeze. Given his own union links, Balls felt he had no choice, because the majority of Labour’s funds come from them.

Miliband was stronger yesterday, saying Labour must put “jobs over pay”. Following the speech, he now enjoys political capital that he did not have 24 hours earlier. However, conference speech triumphs – rare, though they are – are the gloss in politics.

The unions hold to a fundamentally different vision from the “one nation” message offered by Miliband yesterday, believing that Labour must appeal first to its core support.

Reflecting the battle within, union leaders such as Unite’s Len McCluskey want the Blairite “Progress” group ejected.

Learning lessons from the New Labour group, including the way it spawned a generation of Blairite politicians, the unions have set up their own think tank, Class, while they want a greater say over the selection of parliamentary candidates for 2015.

Five thousand of their members have been encouraged to join local Labour constituency organisations.

Thirty years ago, union approval was a prerequisite before any ambitious candidate could hope to win a Labour nomination, but that influence has waned. Now they want it back. Ed Miliband is now an unchallengeable leader of the Labour Party, but battles for Labour’s heart remain.

Mark Hennessy is London Editor

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