By Jonathan Kirkup, Cardiff University
There can be no doubt that Ed Miliband’s leadership is in trouble. After a squeaker of a by-election in Heywood and Middleton, which in turn followed a near-disastrous turn at the party’s Manchester conference, Miliband is as beleaguered and unpopular as ever.
And yet, for all the recent talk of a leadership challenge, it is still a racing certainty that he will lead the Labour party into the next general election. How can this be?
The main reason he’s inordinately safe in his job is timing: thanks to the torturously long process by which Labour elects its leaders, even if a formal challenge had been initiated immediately after Miliband’s lacklustre conference speech, the new leader would probably still not have been in place by the start of 2015.
That would leave the successful candidate with barely any time to construct a new team, formulate and present a distinctive policy, and prepare the party for the general election.
There is also the prospect that having performed political regicide, Labour would do no better or even worse than it would have under Miliband. As the old truism goes: “Divided parties do not win elections.”
But Labour’s “Ed Miliband problem” is not new.
Ever since his election as leader in 2010 he has consistently failed to convince the public that he is a prime minister-in-waiting.
The settled view is that he’s out of touch, not statesmanlike enough – and frankly a bit odd, with his credibility as a potential national leader seemingly in line with his ability to eat in public. His personal ratings have been dire, -37 according to ICM, while David Cameron is riding high on a comparatively warm -7.
Even his most conspicuous successes: the attack on Rupert Murdoch on phone hacking, his stance on bankers’ bonuses and his opposition to intervention in Syria in 2013 earned praise from the parliamentary party and broad respect in the media, but did little to rehabilitate his rather pathetic public persona.
The question therefore arises: if Miliband has consistently been a drag on his own party’s chances of winning in 2015 and if it’s too late to remove him, why was he not replaced as soon as his serious problems became apparent?
Slash and burn
This baffling tradition of loyalty to embattled leaders is an old Labour problem. Since World War II, the Labour party has always allowed its leader to fight at least one general election, arguably against its better judgement; 1983 and 2010 spring to mind.
That makes for a sharp and unedifying contrast with the Conservative party, which seems to have no scruples about summarily deposing leaders once they become an electoral liability.
Recall the travails of Iain Duncan Smith, the ill-fated Tory leader of 2001-2003, whose sad story is superficially similar to Miliband’s. Like Miliband, Duncan Smith was an outsider in the leadership contest and was elected without leading a poll of the parliamentary party. And, like Miliband, he failed dismally to connect with the public.
But the comparison only goes so far. Unlike Miliband, Duncan Smith was dogged by all-too-public internal discontent and he was unceremoniously ditched two years before the 2005 election.
Labour’s political culture would never allow such a violent spectacle.
Treason and plot
What few regicide attempts the party has witnessed have come off more embarrassing than lethal, reinforcing its unease with the whole business of public defenestration. Most recently, the debacle of Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon’s coup plot against Gordon Brown in 2009 is still fresh in many minds – insulating Miliband from similar threats.
Indeed, the parliamentary Labour party has been conspicuously loyal to Miliband, with only minor figures breaking rank.
In order to replace a leader it is generally considered prudent to have a credible replacement, and Ed Miliband has no obvious rival. David Miliband – who could once have been the “prince over the water” – has ruled himself out by literally putting an ocean between himself and the Labour party, swanning off to head up the International Rescue Committee in New York.
There are few other possible successors. None of the shadow cabinet have broken ranks or done anything to put forward an alternative vision for the party. That speaks to a more existential problem with the party: nearly all the big hitters of the Blair/Brown era have left the political jungle, and none of the few remainders seems to have the appetite for leadership.
Of course, there are also hard electoral reasons behind Labour’s decision to stick with Ed, principally the so-called “35% strategy”.
Party tacticians have concluded that Labour can be returned to office with the support of little over a third of the electorate. Thanks to the anomalies of the electoral system, assuming the Lib Dems poll around 15%, the Conservatives will need a 7% lead over Labour to secure a majority, while Labour need muster only a 1% margin.
The rising support for UKIP is largely coming at the expense of Conservative votes, even in the recent Heywood and Middleton by-election where Labour’s majority was substantially eroded. On current projections, Miliband is still set to squeak into Number 10, as he has been for much of the last four years. The rationale seems to be that with the narrowest of wins in sight, a late-stage leadership change would be an unnecessary risk.
But this strategy has serious risks of its own. The Liberal Democrats are consistently polling far below 15%, and the impact UKIP will have on Labour in the north is still difficult to predict.
Still, while Miliband may not be glamorous or loved, he has also capably confronted Cameron at prime minister’s questions; Labour is secretly confident he will do the same in leadership debates.
Perhaps Miliband just doesn’t fit any historical parallels, even recent ones. In 2003, Duncan Smith was inexorably leading the Conservative party to a huge electoral defeat, and the party had little to lose in replacing him, whereas since 2010, the political landscape has been far more uncertain.
The Conservative electoral strategy will be to ask the public if they can really picture Ed Miliband standing outside Number 10. The question for Ed Miliband will be whether he can obtain what has so far eluded him: the gravitas and vision to convince the British people he is prime ministerial material, as Wilson managed in 1964. Will he fail to seal the deal like Neil Kinnock in 1992 or can he win the keys to Number 10, even if he can’t eat a bacon sandwich?
Jonathan Kirkup does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.