In politics, the old saying goes; a week can be a very long time. It follows then that the thirty weeks or so between now and the general elections next year should be an eternity. But for the Labour Party and Ed Miliband, riding uncomfortably low in the water after a poor conference season, it must seem an awfully soon.
It wasn’t so long ago that Miliband was setting the political agenda. Ahead in the polls and grabbing the headlines with policies such as the proposed freeze on energy bills, Labour were beginning to look, if not comfortable then at least confident. Confident that they were heading in the right direction and confident in their leader.
Yet on Monday, when ex-Labour adviser Damien McBride wrote in The Times that Miliband’s future as leader was in question, one couldn’t help but thinking that it made sense. McBride has hardly been a serious player within the party or offered much insight into its working for some time, but his narrative of a stubborn, isolated Miliband trying to run a party and election campaign on his own seems to fit with the chaotic public face the party now possesses. Local activists complained that during the recent Heywood and Middleton by-election, which saw Labours majority fall from around 6,000 to 617, the instructions from upon high to focus the campaign on the NHS jarred horribly with the emphasis on immigration as an issue by voters on the door step. A controlling central authority, unaware or uninterested in the realities of the campaign. Sound familiar?
The reality is that, while Miliband may have been a highly competent political adviser in his day, and while he is surrounded by a number of bright, capable politicians, if he’s chosen to ignore them and keep his own council then Labour are poorer for it. As Labour List’s Mark Ferguson and The Guardian’s Rafael Behr have pointed out in recent articles, not only has Miliband moved away from more radical figures such as Arnie Graf, who inspired much of his earlier success, he also appears to be backing himself as the key author of the manifesto for next year’s election. This despite of the wide ranging and well thought of policy review conducted by John Crudas, which had been considered to be the basis for a strong 2015 election campaign. As Behr puts it ‘It is widely expected that the manifesto will be a cautious affair, put together by the wonks in the leader’s office, with droplets from the policy review added for flavour.’
None of this is helped by Miliband’s image problem, which his forgetful conference speech did nothing to improve. Yet, paradoxically, Labour still hold a lead in the opinion polls, a lead which the Conservatives have found nigh on impossible to shift. This is the real head scratcher, that despite all of Labour’s internal problems and its chaotic public image, if the polls are to be believed, Ed Miliband will be leading the largest party after the next election. However, a recent YouGov poll managed to show that while Labour are on course to win the election, more people think David Cameron will be Prime Minister post-2015 than Miliband. This demonstrates neatly the real issue facing Labour. They may be ahead but they’re having trouble convincing anyone that their lead will last or that their man will look good in Number 10. Over the coming months that will have to change, something that will be doubly hard to do if Ed doesn’t learn to trust his friends again.