Ed Miliband’s route to victory

Peter KellnerPresident
July 09, 2013, 7:50 AM GMT+0

This is Ed Miliband’s darkest hour; but dawn could soon arrive, Peter Kellner's latest commentary.

His current poll numbers are plainly terrible. YouGov’s latest survey for the Sunday Times was conducted as the arguments raged about Labour’s links with the trade unions and, in particular, Miliband’s spat with Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union. It found that:

  • Only 26% think he is doing well as Labour’s leader; 60% think he is doing badly – a nets score of minus 34.

  • A mere 18% of the public – and only 38% of Labour supporters – feel he ‘has provided an effective opposition to the government’

  • Just 20% think he is up to the job of Prime Minister – down from an already low 25% two months ago.

  • One in three of those who voted Labour in 2010 think he is NOT up to the job.

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How should Miliband respond? As usual on these occasions, the cry goes up for Labour to sever its links with the unions. Leaving aside the merits of this issue, we should note that the present arrangement did nothing to stop Labour winning three elections in a row under Tony Blair, two of them with huge majorities.

However, Blair had proved that he would not be swayed by union votes and union money. Years before he became leader, he ended the party’s backing for closed shops – the system that allowed unions to force all employees in workplaces with ‘closed shop’ agreements to be union members. In the 1994 leadership election, his own union, the mighty TGWU, opposed him, yet he still won a clear majority of union members’ votes. And within months he had persuaded the party to abandon its support for traditional ‘clause 4’ socialism – once again defying the wishes of many union leaders. By the time of the 1997 election, Tory attempts to portray Blair as a left-wing stooge (most famously in their ‘demon eyes’ advertisement) were plainly ridiculous.

Miliband’s problem is that his record is nothing like Blair’s. Indeed, he really does owe his position to the leaders of the big unions, including Unite. During the 2010 leadership election YouGov twice polled union members with a vote. Initially, in July, they backed David Miliband over his brother by 56-44%. Then the big unions went to work. Not only did they tell their members to back Ed, they inserted the ballot papers inside envelopes with Ed’s picture; they refused to allow rival candidates either to put their case in the same mailing or to have direct access to union members. By early September we found that union members had swung to Ed by a massive 13%. They now backed Ed by 57-43%. His final margin of victory in this section was 60-40% – just enough to overturn David’s leads among MPs and local party members.

This matters because today’s arguments do not simply concern the merits of union members taking part in Labour elections. Ed could, and does, point out that more than 330,000 individuals voted in the contest three years ago, far more than the number of Conservatives involved in the election that made David Cameron leader of his party in 2005. Ed’s real problem is the way the major unions behaved. They exploited inadequate party rules to run a biased campaign in his favour. Had they given all the candidates a fair chance to appeal to their members, the 13% swing to Ed would almost certainly not have happened. Given the closeness of the final result, without that shift, David would have won.

(How can I be sure that Ed would have lost a fair contest? Because YouGov also polled individual party members, and found only a 2% shift from David to Ed between July and September. Had trade unionists swung by 2% from David to Ed, David would have won the overall contest comfortably. David would also have been the victor had union members swung by 4% or even 8% to his younger brother. Union leaders needed a campaign swing well into double figures to make Ed leader. They set about their task with single-minded determination and got their way. Not only did they violate the principles of fairness; they also ignored the fact that in the 2010 election, 49% of union members voted for one of the two coalition parties and only 38% for Labour.)

Miliband, then, has his work cut out to persuade voters that he is not a pawn of the unions. What can he do? The starting point for any fight-back is the realisation that this is not just about Labour and the unions. It is about the character of the party and its leader. Blair was able to win despite the Labour-union link because voters decided that he was tough enough, independent enough and, above all, competent enough to lead Britain. Miliband needs to build a similar reputation.

Fortunately, the very issue that is causing him such pain at the moment provides an opportunity to start that process. In recent days he has talked the talk with flair and steel. Now he must walk the walk. There is an agenda for him to capture, and which he has hinted at, of giving more of a say to union members and less power to union leaders. Today’s promised speech will enable him to move beyond hints.

One option is to end the system by which members of unions affiliated to the Labour party pay the political levy automatically unless they actively opt out. There is a strong case for a double reform: establishing an opt-in system, under which individual union members would have to assert positively that they wish to pay their levy; and then giving who do so full individual party membership. At a stroke, Labour would become Britain’s largest political party by far. Leadership and candidate-selection contests would be truly democratic. Unions would become collection agencies rather than power-brokers. They would no longer be able to buy block votes with block funds.

That, however, would be just a start. It would help Miliband to fend off the charge that he is a plaything of union leaders. But that merely gets rid of an obstacle in his path. To persuade voters that he has the strength, independence and competence to become Prime Minister, he must do much more.

His biggest challenge concerns the issue on which the Government ought to be vulnerable: the economy. For three years it has been flatlining. Productivity and living standards are down. Investment levels are scandalously low. The big banks are discredited. Well-known multinational companies stand accused of tax-dodging. If there was ever a time for an alternative, ambitious, clear-headed left-of-centre strategy for business and growth, it is surely now.

However, since 2010 Labour has been hobbled by its own record in office. Voters still blame the Blair and Brown years more than the coalition for Britain’s woes. But this is partly because few normal people have been listening to what Miliband or Ed Balls have been saying. They remember who was in charge when recession struck, and show little interest in giving them a second hearing. This is not surprising. When a party is kicked out after a long spell in power, voters take time before they are willing to review their verdict.

In these circumstances, every chance to gain a hearing must be seized. Miliband may not like the form of attention he is now receiving, but he should be grateful to get any attention at all. While the spotlight is on him, he can seize the hour. While the media and his opponents test his mettle, he has the ideal opportunity to show that he is able not just to sort out Labour’s relations with the unions, but to take big, bold steps towards the goal that really matters: re-establishing Labour’s economic credibility.

I am loathe to offer odds on Miliband achieving either objective, let alone both. His current spat with McCluskey could go horribly wrong. If so, Labour will be doomed to lose in 2015. But maybe, just maybe, Miliband can turn his current troubles to his advantage and set Labour on the road to victory. This is truly a crisis he can’t afford to waste.

See the full YouGov / Sunday Times results

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