Though it hasn’t been a great month for British prime minister David Cameron, November was quite possibly the worst month in the four-year tenure of Labour leader Ed Miliband, who was forced to endure a full-fledged crisis of confidence just six months before the next general election.
Miliband (pictured above) began the first half of the month batting away rumors that a backbencher uprising might topple him from the leadership just before the country prepares for the May 2015 general election. Miliband had already come under fire for a lackluster speech at Labour’s September party conference in which he didn’t mention the British budget deficit.
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Most reports urged Alan Johnson, the widely respected former home secretary, as a potential replacement, though Johnson declaimed all interest in leading the party, thereby depriving any plotters of the most necessary ingredient to a successful putsch — the quick installation of a universally well-regarded successor.
Labour struggling to retain working-class supporters
No sooner did the ‘dump Miliband’ story quell than Miliband was forced to sack Emily Thornberry, the shadow work and pensions secretary, for a photograph (see below) posted to Twitter that seemed to mock working-class English voters — it’s a peculiar quirk of the delicate nature of class that a photo of a white van parked in front of a house with two English flags waving would stir such controversy. But it’s arguably the most damaging moment for Labour vis-à-vis the British working class since April 2010, when then-prime minister Gordon Brown was overheard calling a Labour supporter a ‘bigoted woman.’
Miliband was forced to reaffirm that Labour was founded as the party of ‘working people,’ even as Nigel Farage’s anti-Europe, populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) now threatens to steal as many traditional supporters from Labour as from the Conservative Party.
UKIP won a November 20 by-election in Rochester and Strood, triggered by Conservative MP Mark Reckless’s decision to defect to the party — Reckless, as the newly minted UKIP candidate, easily defeated Tory challenger Kelly Tolhurst, leaving Labour far behind in third place with 16.8%. Reckless is the second Tory to defect to UKIP, joining Douglas Carswell — and quite possibly others in the months ahead.
Though you might think that’s more of a headache for Cameron than for Miliband, UKIP’s rise is just one reason why the November scare won’t be the last time between now and May that Miliband faces a surge of doubt within Labour ranks.
The latest Nov. 24-25 poll from YouGov and The Sun shows that Labour’s once commanding lead has dwindled to just a 33%-32% advantage over the Tories, with UKIP winning 16%, the Liberal Democrats (currently in coalition with the Conservatives) at 7% and the Green Party with 6%.
SNP rise complicates path to Labour majority
In Scotland, Miliband faces a major defection among nationalist voters, who have flocked en masse to the Scottish National Party (SNP) following the narrow independence referendum in September and the rise of Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland’s first minister last week. A Nov. 6-12 Survation/Daily Record poll shows the SNP would win 46% of the vote, with just 24% for Labour and 17% for the Tories (who have suffered less because their support was always lower in Scotland).
Though the SNP has increasingly held a lock on regional elections, Scottish voters have traditionally not supported it in the UK’s general elections. If the trend holds in May, it would almost certainly deprive Labour of many of its 40 Scottish constituencies. As British politics fragment from a two-party system to a multi-party system, it will almost certainly ensure that the next government will, like the current one, be a coalition government.
All of this — backbencher pressure, UKIP’s rise in England, the SNP’s rise in Scotland, the Thornberry tweet — would have been difficult for any Labour leader to navigate. But it’s even worse for Miliband, who is everything that former Labour prime minister Tony Blair was not. His speaking style is workmanlike at best. He’s a geeky technocrat, not a broad-strokes orator. Blair, increasingly irrelevant to British politics, has only tepidly supported Labour’s current leader.
More Kinnock than Blair
Miliband is a policy wonk who was always closer to Blair’s nemesis Brown (who is tipped to announce shortly his resignation as a member of the House of Commons), and he’s even closer to Neil Kinnock, who was ‘new’ Labour before Blair rechristened New Labour formally. Kinnock lost a general election (in 1987) that he was supposed to lose and he lost another (in 1992) that he was supposed to win. The lesson should not be lost on Miliband — at the the margins, charisma and attributes like ‘leadership’ and personality matter.
Miliband’s support among traditional ‘old Labour’ unions, which won him the unfortunate ‘Red Ed’ nickname, pushed him to victory in September 2010 over his brother, David Miliband, who was at the time the far more accomplished politician after serving ably as British foreign secretary. That brother David narrowly defeated Ed among Labour rank-and-file voters and among Labour MPs only highlights Ed Miliband’s relatively weak position.
Though voters seem to dislike Miliband more than Cameron, Farage or even Liberal Democratic leader, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, it’s not exactly that the British public has rallied to Cameron, chancellor George Osborne or the prospect of a Conservative majority. What’s clear is that many British voters feel like they will be choosing among the ‘least worst’ option in May 2015. In that kind of election, Miliband might wind up the least offensive alternative — especially if UKIP steals more votes from the Conservatives than Labour and if the SNP, which leans toward social democratic policies, can form a coalition with Labour (and, perhaps, the Liberal Democrats).
Miliband’s EU policy could appeal to moderates and business leaders
Moreover, beyond attacking Osborne’s ‘austerity’ policies and running hard on the issue of health care, Miliband has astutely positioned himself in many ways as the steadiest hand on EU policy. Overlooked amid the headlines earlier this month was Miliband’s speech promising British business interests that he will not play politics with the country’s membership in the European Union:
“If I am prime minister I will never risk your businesses, British jobs, British prosperity by playing political games with our membership of the EU,” he will tell the CBI. “We must change fundamentally the way our economy works so that it meets the basic aspirations of the British people for good jobs at decent wages, proper opportunity for the next generation, and a country that is seen to be fair. And I want to do this in partnership with you.”
That should come as a relief to a large segment of the UK electorate that doesn’t relish three years or more of uncertainty that would come in another Conservative government. Cameron has pledged, if reelected, to renegotiate the country’s EU membership and hold a subsequent referendum on EU membership in 2017. The eurosceptic tone of a potential Tory government, however, would be amplified if Cameron is forced to look to UKIP, which rose to prominence by demanding UK withdrawal from the European Union, as a potential coalition partner.
As the risks of leaving the European Union — and the access to the European single market — become clearer to voters, Miliband might arguably be seen to be the more ‘small-c’ conservative candidate in 2015, as the candidate of steady continuity for British jobs and economic growth, in contrast to the rupture that a UKIP-threatened Conservative government might pursue.
Though that’s not necessarily a reason for voters, or even Labour’s members, to be enthusiastic about Miliband’s personal qualities, it explains why Labour’s path to government is still viable.