Ed Miliband: Labour's Achilles' heel

By accepting Tory spending cuts, Labour will be left to fight the election with its Achilles’ heel: Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband: Not up for the fight
Ben Mitchell
On 25 June 2013 08:20

The thing that makes us politicos a little different from everyone else (i.e. normal folk) is our ability to fight the charge that “they’re all the same.” On the radio, on TV, on the doorstep, such words never tire. Mainly used as an attack on politicians, it could equally be applied to the lack of policy distinction between parties. Never mind it being tiring to hear, it’s tiring to defend, because it’s getting harder to do.

Labour has spent the last few weeks back on planet earth. After a three year detour on Planet Unelectable, and its belief that the crash has moved the world left, it’s back where it started. That is, back in the early days of Blairism. In other words, more where voters are, and not where they’d like them to be.  

Steve Richards, one of our finest political pundits, acknowledged this week that the reason leading Blairites remain such a cheerful bunch is because “they and their ideas have ruled for decades.” Cameron’s welfare reforms continue where Blair left off, except the PM is unencumbered by leftist opposition, with a whopping deficit as the justification that keeps on giving.  All the more remarkable considering the coalition government isn’t the handicap it could and should have been.

Whether he believes it or not, whether he wants to or not, Ed Miliband has found himself accepting the Tory narrative on austerity. Of course things are never that clear cut with the Labour leader. What he says in a “keynote speech” one minute often ends up as undecipherable waffle in subsequent interviews.  The words blood and stone spring to mind when trying to get a clear commitment one way or another.

Labour hasn’t signed up to every Tory cut, but it’s the ones it has signed up to that reveal the direction the party is now heading. So, what does that mean for voters and how does this affect Labour? Four things seem obvious.

First, all of Labour’s anti-austerity posturing has come to nothing. The government has repeated its ‘there is no alternative’ rhetoric ad nauseam. Its repetition has paid off. Second, Labour will struggle to put clear water between itself and the Tories. Of course it will try to spend the next two years doing just that, whilst inadvertently encroaching on their patch.

Which leads us on to point three and ‘they’re all the same’ territory. Labour’s sudden change of heart may be the right thing to do in terms capturing swing voters, but this group is notoriously hard to pin down with regards to voting intention, hence the swing bit. Why vote for austerity-lite when you can have the real thing they’ll be asking themselves? If Labour are moving towards the government’s position, the latter must be doing something right.

Ironically, what might work in grabbing new voters may also work in turning old ones away. One could be forgiven for mistaking Labour’s core vote and non-voters as one and the same thing. Both unreliable bellwethers of public opinion, and both easily turned off from the political process.  This will do nothing to convince them “they” are not in fact all the same.

Fourthly, and most disastrously for Labour: in accepting Tory spending cuts, the next election comes down to a battle of Dave vs. Ed. The very thing Labour wants to avoid. The one constant about Ed Miliband’s leadership is that he remains his party’s Achilles’ heel. It’s hard to see how he can win a head-to-head with David Cameron. The threat of Ed at number 10 will be enough for the hordes of UKIPpers to come racing back to Dave. Miliband would be well advised to kick up a very public fuss about the TV leaders’ debate and Cameron’s attempts to squirm out of them. This could be his best (and only) chance to shine in front of millions of voters, many of them undecided.

Behind the curve on welfare and the economy Labour has been left with little choice. Miliband may have won plaudits for taking on powerful interest groups and pleas for a different sort of capitalism, but he’s always been speaking to the wrong people. These subjects are too academic, too dry, and too broad to resonate with the average voter.

He has less than two years to reassure that ‘they’re not all the same.’ Belatedly embracing austerity means he has little room for manoeuvre. 

Ben Mitchell is deputy editor of the political blog the Speaker's Chair. He has written for the Independent, Huffington Post, LabourList and elsewhere. He tweets at @bmitchellwrites

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