Left Watch

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A letter to Ed Miliband

Dear Ed,

Congratulations!  You're the best of Labour's leadership candidates.

Admittedly, this isn't saying much.  Just look at the competition.

* David Miliband.  I don't want to disparage your brother.  However, since you've done so more emphatically than I could ever do - by standing against him in this election - you presumably won't mind if I'm direct. It isn't essential for a leader to look as though he shares the experiences, interests, hopes, fears, worries, and anxieties of that elusive animal, the ordinary voter - but it helps.  Your brother seems less plugged into everyday life than almost any other politician I can think of.  He's unable to escape the air of a brilliant think tank intern who's just scribbled an election-winning paper on Baseline Beacon Benchmarking. This is a pity, since he seems to be a nice guy, and there's no evidence that he's any more or less grounded than you are.  But he just can't help looking as though he knows better than whoever's speaking to him at the time. This is an error that another insider, David Cameron - Conservative Research Department, Special Adviser, brief excursion into Carlton TV - almost never makes.

* John McDonnell.  Principled, dogged, good on TV - and too left-wing to hit it off with the voters.  I apologise if in saying so I'm a victim of conventional thinking.  But in any event, he may not get enough nominations, due to your Party's leadership election rules - which are designed to exclude rather than include candidates.

* Andy Burnham.  Sorry, but what's the point of him?

* Diane Abbot.  Good on TV doesn't come into it. She does TV the way Pavarotti does Nessun Dorma. Perhaps regular exposure to Michael Portillo has something to do with it.  She's inexhaustible, unshutupable, and must be as tough as mammoth hide. But somehow I can't quite see her as a Party Leader, even if she could get the nominations. And if she concedes herself that educating her children in a private system she opposes is "indefensible", what are the rest of us meant to make of it?

* Ed Balls. He's a great comic creation, and it would make our day, not to mention our decade, if he won.

That leaves you.  And - first things first - your Party's position really isn't all that bad, you know.

* A few weeks ago, it won a shaming 29% of the vote.  That's only 1% more than Michael Foot chalked up in 1983.  And 2% less than we gleaned in our 1997 humiliation.  But whereas we won 165 seats on 31% of the vote, you won almost a hundred more - 258 - on 2% less.  If you'd gained, say, ten more seats and we ten fewer, Peter Mandelson would probably have pulled off the rainbow coalition, and Gordon Brown still be Prime Minister.

* This is a solid base from which to set out.  The question is: where do you want to go? One answer is: wherever it may be, you probably won't get there if Conservative-Liberal Democrat co-operation becomes a merger - whether formal or not. Between them, the Coalition partners took almost 60% of the vote, and have an emphatic Commons majority of 78.

* Cameron's strategy will therefore be to keep the Coalition together for five years, and gradually turn the two parties into a merged force - dominating the "centre ground" (which he believes is essential for victory), isolating his right (which he thinks has hobbled his Party's electoral performance for too long), and delivering him a second term.  What's the betting that, at some point, he tries a name change - "The Liberal Conservative Party"?  (Remember: we're already a Conservative and Liberal Party - Liberal Unionist, anyway.)

* Crucial to keeping the Coalition together is the referendum on AV.  After all, the Liberal Democrats have little incentive to stay in the Government if it doesn't happen.  So it probably will. This will offer you a golden opportunity to bust up the Coalition. Cameron's no choice but to campaign against AV: his backbenchers won't have it any other way and - as his climbdown on the '22 elections demonstrated - he's not in a position to gainsay them on fundamentals. You, on the other hand, fought the last election on a manifesto which not only supported a referendum on AV, but AV itself - so that "every MP is supported by a majority of their constituents voting at each election". In other words, AV is the ultimate demonstration of "I agree with Nick".  So during the referendum campaign, you can (Labour leadership victory assumed) effectively campaign alongside the Liberal Democrats - thus flattering Clegg, isolating Cameron, and undermining the Coalition.

* Reliable evidence about whether Liberal Democrat voters prefer Labour to the Conservatives, and if so by what degree, is hard to come by.  And what they'd do in a Westminster AV election, after five years or so of the Coalition, is impossible to know.  But what findings there are suggest that they do indeed lean left rather than right, perhaps emphatically.

* So in an AV referendum, you'll probably win, whatever the outcome.  If AV falls, the Coalition looks to tumble with it, since the Liberal Democrats will surely find a way of leaving the Government (and the Tories - with their detestable first-past-the-post voting system).  An election could not then be long postponed - whatever the 55% condition may say.  But if it AV carries, the Coalition, though left standing, will be weakened - and in good time for you, with an election looming in any event.

* Either way, the route to electoral success is clear. Don't fret too much about your base.  As I say, it's solid - and a few years of Coalition spending cuts will make it even more so.  And in the short-term, the BNP are finished as an electoral threat.  Andy Burnham's musing aloud about the effects of mass immigration on the residual working class.  Let him. You've a huge slice of their votes in the bag.  And you don't want to upset the minority ethnic vote, which could go elsewhere as living standards rise over time. Let alone the prosperous Guardianistas - Labour's establishment, which, if you're sensible, you'll upset for other, better reasons. Please don't protest that abandoning the working class would be wrong.  After all, your Party's been doing it for years: look at the way Labour Councils work (or don't).

* Instead, keep your eye on Liberal Democrat MPs (most of whom would rather work with you than with the Conservatives) and Liberal Democrat voters (most of whom would rather vote for you than the Conservatives). Junk the Blair/Brown anti-civil liberties legacy as fast as you can.  Keep going on climate change and global warming.  Pledge radical constitutional change - a written constitution, a fully-elected second chamber, MPs barred from earning outside the Commons - in order to drive a wedge between the Coalition partners.

* And don't forget Conservative voters, either.  Sure, some of them would rather eat their children than vote Labour.  But many - particularly those who switched to Cameron, or plumped for him first-time - are cast in the same aspirational mould as those who backed Blair in 1997. It's hard to generalise about such a broad mass of people.  But it's reasonable to assume that they watch their household budgets jealously.  Come the next election, Cameron will want to re-run the Tories "tax bombshell" election campaign of 1992.  Don't let him. Refuse Ed Balls the Shadow Chancellorship - thus both sending a signal to middle class voters and demonstrating your authority.  Say that you'll stick to the Conservatives' spending plans. (That's where to upset the Guardianistas.) Talk about finding extra tax revenue from growth. If you must suggest tax rises, fix them narrowly on unpopular targets - banks, bonuses, the super-rich.  I know such hikes would lose revenue in the medium-term.  Then again, so do you.  But you grasp the main point: let floating voters know that their incomes, jobs and mortgages are safe in your hands.

* So far, so new Labour: safe, secure, and - with the exception of putting Balls in his place (or rather, keeping him out of his place) - a bit dull.  I agree that you've got to take some risks, raise your profile, get yourself noticed.  Your Party gains from the myth that it cares more about healthcare than other parties, and loses from the truth that it's less exacting than them about welfare claimants.  It would probably be easier for you than for the Coalition to reform either or both, but there probably aren't many votes in it in opposition.  On schools, you'll want to attack the detail of the Gove reforms but muddy the waters about the main principles: after all, you never know - they might turn out to be popular.  So write a book (no: not a political book - something else; anything else).  Make a TV series.  Or a film.  Get out of Westminster and tour the country.  Set up lots of enquiries, and get Conservatives or, better still, Liberal Democrats to chair them.  Above all, promote as many good women as you can, as swiftly as you can.  That you don't have a mainstream woman leadership contender, after 13 years in Government, speaks eloquently of a hole somewhere near the heart of the Labour project.  I know that we're not much better - and arguably worse.  But at least we don't drone on about the subject for more time than our record will bear.

* This isn't quite enough.  You need something else.  I think it lies in the field of foreign affairs.  No, not Europe: you're too bound up with the EU project to imagine being free of it.  I'm thinking, rather, of Afghanistan.  It's clear that Obama doesn't really believe in the surge.  It follows, then, that sooner or later most of our troops will come home.  Secure in the knowledge that this will happen, you can pave the way for it - making the case for troop reductions, differentiating between the Helmand mission and a broader presence, arguing (with a Defence Review in the background) that we must cut our military cloth to fit our strategic shape, not the other way round.  Attempts to portray you as "soft on defence" would be 25 years out of date: after all, where's public understanding of, let alone support for, the case for the surge?  Furthermore, it's not clear whether such efforts could achieve much traction, since much of the Conservative Parliamentary Party no longer believes in nation-building in Afghanistan, if it ever did.

And that's it.  A sympathetic Liberal Democrat Party, ten more seats or so, and you're home and dry in Number 10 - with a fine chance of countering the short-term Cameron centre-right coalition with a long-term centre left realignment: the realisation of Roy Jenkins' grand scheme.  So say I.  And I'm a Tory.  Which is why I wouldn't lie to you, would I?



Paul Goodman