Richard Heller: Miliband mustn’t be caught on hop again by Mr Toad

IN 1983, after a calamitous campaign, Labour took a pounding from Margaret Thatcher. Labour’s defeat by Ukip in the European elections was worse – not only bitter but shameful.

Margaret Thatcher was a political giant. Nigel Farage is a minor figure, successfully reinvented as a genial bloke who dresses like Mr Toad and enjoys a pint and a fag.

In 1983, Labour faced a serious challenger as the main opposition to the Conservative government. But in 2010 when the Liberal Democrats joined the coalition Labour regained its monopoly as the only alternative government for the United Kingdom. When Ed Miliband became its surprise leader, he had a unique chance to reinvent Labour as the sole opposition.

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Without trashing the record of the governments he had served, he could have shown how his would be something different and better. He had a clear field to propose new ideas for reforming the banks and financial markets, for remodelling the tax and welfare system, for finding new sources of jobs and growth, for education, health and provision for the elderly, for EU reform and a host of other major issues.

Above all, he could have ended Labour’s identification with a self-seeking, self-rewarding political class, which never accepts responsibility for error and failure and their impact on people in the real world outside their political bubble.

None of these things have happened – especially the last. Labour paid the price in the elections. It is worth recalling that Labour beat Ukip in the Euro-elections of 2009 – fought under an unpopular leader of an incumbent government amidst a ruined economy. It edged ahead of Ukip in Yorkshire and the Humber. In 2014, in far better circumstances, Labour was overtaken there by Ukip. Labour put on 150,000 votes, compared with 2009, but Ukip found another 190,000 – even beating Labour in Ed Miliband’s base in Doncaster.

Inevitably, critics have blamed Labour’s leader for its performance, citing polling and personal evidence that he is a liability. He was certainly a klutz on the campaign trail – losing a contest with a bacon sandwich, forgetting the name of his party’s local candidate on local radio and leading a cost-of-living campaign while not knowing the cost of living himself.

Other critics focus on more serious mistakes. Having commissioned a thoroughgoing policy review, Ed Miliband has allowed it to drift deep into an election year. In consequence, Labour will suffer from stories about rows and splits over key recommendations, and exposure of any silly ideas, without the time to bed down ideas which might be sensible and popular.

Ed Miliband gave a free gift to Ukip on the EU referendum – not simply by opposing it but in his reasons. He effectively told the British people that a referendum would be bad for Big Business because they could not be trusted to vote the right way.

It is easy to blame Ed Miliband for his party’s failures, but Labour could still benefit from showcasing his personal honesty and intellect. None of his Shadow Cabinet have offered any evidence that they would do better, and several should be replaced. Douglas Alexander was a hapless campaign supremo, despite expensive advice from David Axelrod, Labour’s part-time American guru.

The acrimonious apparatchik Michael Dugher wants to replace him – another horse from Caligula’s stable. Sadiq Khan, the shadow London minister, would be a much better full-time campaign chief. He was the spearhead of a notably-better Labour performance in London, without which the party would have come third in the European elections. The performance may owe little to Mr Khan, because London may now be a distinct political country, but he deserves his chance to repeat it.

More important, Labour needs a new Shadow Chancellor. Ed Balls could not win the economic argument for Labour when nothing was going right for the Government. He is not the man to convince voters to drop the Government as they emerge from pain into upturn. He and Labour are still trapped in his past, as the creator of a failed “light touch” system of financial regulation, as part of an economic team which made complacency Britain’s biggest growth industry and then presided over the crash. He should return to his old brief at education in place of the lightweight Tristram Hunt. If he thinks that giving Britain’s children a future is not a big enough job for him, he can skulk on the backbenches.

These changes would be helpful to Labour – as would a mass cull of Ed Miliband’s personal staff and entourage. But they are no substitute for completing the big tasks which the party faced when he took over. If he could not win voters back when he had the field to himself it will be even harder now that he must compete with a noisy, popular Mr Toad.

• Richard Heller was chief of staff to Denis Healey from 1981 to 1983, including Labour’s “suicide note” election campaign, in which Labour lost over three million votes.