Richard Heller: Miliband’s Labour in last chance saloon

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JUST over four years ago, Ed Miliband surprised the nation by winning the leadership of his party. Labour then monopolised the role of opposition to the coalition Government, giving him a priceless opportunity to re-invent his party.

He missed his chance. Instead, he has allowed others to define Labour as part of a failed, out-of-touch, self-seeking political establishment. Far from monopolising the opposition, Labour is losing disaffected voters to the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales as well as to Ukip and the Greens in England.

As leader, the Doncaster North MP has become Labour’s greatest liability since Michael Foot.

He has time to recover. But he must recognise that he and his party must do everything better – not just in his personal performances, but in better policies, better strategies, better prepared initiatives, better responses to adverse events, better discharge of everyday political routine.

I see no such recognition.

A few months ago he made light of his image problems, and told people to judge him on his ideas and principles.

Like it or not, image is one of the responsibilities of modern leadership and Ed Miliband has no right to avoid it. He also casually insulted every voter with doubts about him, effectively saying “you’re too shallow and stupid to look beyond my image at my wonderful ideas”. More recently, he failed to take responsibility for a disastrous party conference speech.

Ed Miliband needs to admit that he owes more to voters – but so do his Shadow Cabinet, especially those now anticipating election defeat and manoeuvring to succeed him. The entire Shadow Cabinet look like players in a sinking football team trying to look good. They run around, shouting and gesturing, and make safe five-yard passes if they get the ball. None attempt anything daring which could change the match.

Some clearly hope to be gifted victory by the opposing team. The Tories might execute a Sunderland-style own goal by breaking up over the EU and the Ukip threat and destroying David Cameron, their biggest asset. But whatever the Tories do, Labour must offer spectators better football.

At the everyday operational level, there are dozens of things Ed Miliband and his entourage must improve. One is answering mail (the Shadow Cabinet is equally bad). On campaign appearances, someone needs to make certain he knows the local candidate and his weekly shopping bill – and how to eat street food. Someone needs to ensure that he sticks to a basic script: he cannot lash Rupert Murdoch one day and another day try to sell his newspaper.

His entourage badly needs firefighters to match Tony Blair’s “rapid rebuttal unit” and ensure a strong response to bad stories. Ed Miliband waited four days to respond (tepidly) to the devastating Jay report on the Rotherham child abuse scandal. This week he was silent after two days of fierce attacks on Labour’s handling of the NHS in Wales. These stories cast fundamental doubt on Labour’s claim to govern.

On policy, John Prescott is right – Labour has almost nothing clear and sharp enough to write on a pledge card. The policy review dragged on too long and then anything exciting was removed from it. Ed Miliband should ask each Shadow Cabinet member to name three simple things he or she would achieve for the country when in office. He should retain only those who can manage one minute without hesitation, repetition or deviation. Independently of this exercise, he should replace the hapless Douglas Alexander as Labour’s campaign manager – ideally with Hull West and Hessle MP Alan Johnson, the celebrated author.

On specific issues, Ed Miliband must pull out of the bidding war with David Cameron and Ukip on being nastier to immigrants. It is unprincipled and futile.

On the EU, Ed Miliband’s opposition to a referendum is simply untenable after the Scottish one. If he cannot admit this, he should at least spell out the reforms he seeks in the EU. For a dramatic and vote-winning proposal, he could call for repatriation of agriculture and fisheries policy.

On the economy, his basic message has been trivial, blaming the wicked Tories for all of Britain’s problems. In fairness, the Tories have done much the same, blaming the last Labour government. Voters need evidence that Ed Miliband and Labour have long-range answers to deep-seated weaknesses in our economy – and the world economy. Ed Miliband has offered too many temporary palliatives, like the energy price freeze, added to his soppy conference appeal to Togetherness – the economics of Shirley Temple.

All these tasks are achievable before the election, but he is running out of time to meet Labour’s biggest problem – the collapse of belief in the party as a means for the British people to achieve their hopes of a happier life.

Like its main rivals, Labour looks less and less like a political movement and more and more like a decaying empire of patronage, filled with uninspiring politicians making careers by working for other politicians and then selling themselves to the special interests which voters asked them to control.

In brief, Ed Miliband must make people believe that his government is worth having. Voting for any opposition party is always a balance of risk and reward. When Tony Blair was opposition leader, he made the rewards of voting Labour seem high and the risks minimal. Ed Miliband is in the opposite place. If he stays there, some voters Labour needs will drift back to the government and many more will decide that they have nothing to lose by making a statement and voting for a different opposition party.

• Richard Heller is a former adviser to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman. His latest book The Importance Of Not Being Earnest is a study of Britain’s lost literary genius, Luke Upward.