After three and a half years of doing the hardest job in UK politics – Winston Churchill once said that being shot was a “kindness” in comparison with being leader of the opposition – the finishing line is just 12 months away for Ed Miliband.
But despite narrowing polls, widespread media hostility and a resurgent Tory party buoyed by an improving economy, Miliband and his top team remain absolutely confident that they will be handed the keys to Number 10 in 2015. This confidence (interesting in and of itself, given the more cautious view taken by many Labour MPs and left-leaning commentators) is based on some big positioning decisions made by Miliband and his team, the validity of which will be tested to destruction in the coming campaign.
The earliest of these decisions was perhaps the most important: to break from New Labour, and pull the party leftwards, providing a new home for disaffected Lib Dem voters and laying the groundwork for a more traditionally social-democratic programme. Gone are the confected fights with the left of the party, the definition of the leader against his own troops (a favourite device of Tony Blair) and serious confrontations with the trade union movement (the messy score-draw compromise of party funding aside). Gone also is any serious effort to win the Conservative switchers who delivered the last three election victories. Miliband’s team is confident that the UK has changed sufficiently from the mid-1990s for Labour to be able to win from the left of the centre-left. Partially underpinning this approach is a combination of the party’s efficient vote distribution and the Lib Dems’ coalition with the Conservatives. As George Eaton points out, “in 2005, with a vote share of just 35 per cent and a lead of just three points, [the Labour Party] achieved a majority of 66 seats.”
The party hotly denies it is following a 35% strategy – but there is also little sense in Westminster that it has a plan to reach the 43.7% of voters Tony Blair attracted in 1997. In tone (if nothing else) the party seems far more focussed on holding onto its base and the 1.8 million voters who have switched from the Lib Dems to Labour since 2010, rather than adding to the 500,000 voters the party has poached from the Tories since the last election.
Miliband’s second big decision took place when the economy started to return to growth in late 2013. Labour’s previous strategy had been to criticise the coalition for choking off the recovery, by cutting “too far and too fast”. But with growth returning, Miliband pivoted from criticising the macroeconomic decisions made by Cameron and Osborne, to focussing on how our current recovery was not delivering improved living standards to ordinary people. It’s what Labour pollster James Morris (and his boss Stan Greenberg) describes as moving the strategy from “it’s the economy, stupid” to “it’s the middle class, stupid.”
This has delivered some success for Miliband, who has forced the coalition onto the back foot on a number of cost-of-living issues. It is also a useful way of trying to move the conversation from economic competency, where Labour trail the Tories badly, to fairness and an understanding of ordinary people where Labour and Miliband lead. A switch away from this focus in the next 12 months seems unlikely – which means we’ll be hearing a lot more from Labour more about the squeezed middle, and those left behind by the recovery.
So with Labour focussing its message on its core vote and Lib Dem defectors, and using living standards to critique the government’s economic record, the advent of the party’s populist social democratic policy offer (Ed’s third key piece of positioning) becomes easier to understand. Miliband’s team believe that the Conservatives’ commitment to free-market capitalism is much stronger than that of the electorate, who – according to some polls – are relaxed about government intervention in any bit of the free market which hurts them.
In some ways it is a measure of Blair’s failure to see how enthusiastically the party he once led has greeted a programme of renationalisation (on rail), a mild form of rent control (on housing), a price freeze and a significant market restructuring (on energy), and a tuition fee cut (for those disaffected Lib Dems). And in harking back to Blair the differences between 2014 and 1996 become clear. 18 years ago, Labour felt sure it could win – even if the party was privately unconvinced about its leader’s policies. Nearly two decades later, Labour isn’t nearly as sure that it is heading for victory – even as it celebrates its leader’s radical direction.
Prediction: Labour to be the largest party. After that, all bets are off…