by Atul Hatwal
So farewell then, Labour conference.
It’s done. The headlines were bad, the political management was poor and the top trending story for part of the last day was Ed Miliband’s denial that he is “weird“.
In amid the detritus of the retreat from conference, talking to folk leaving the security bubble, one apparent point of consensus was that Ed Miliband had definitively secured his grip on the leadership.
Andrew Sparrow even rated it the number one fact in his top ten list of things he learned about the Labour party at conference.
It’s true there is no cabal ready to mount a coup and there was no talk of imminent insurrection either in the bars or the fringes.
But appearances can be deceptive.
Conference has not given the leader the boost either within the party, or out in the country, that he needed. In the polls so far there’s been no bounce, not even the dead cat variety. In fact the fear in Liverpool was the reverse – that his ratings would slip slightly given the coverage of his big speech.
Which means that Ed Miliband’s political health might not be as robust as people think.
Three dangers that could have been minimised with a strong conference performance now assume a greater salience and mean that Miliband’s leadership is entering its most vulnerable phase.
First, there’s the final legacy of Gordon Brown; second, the consequences of re-shaping the shadow cabinet and third, but not least, the spectre of London’s mayoral election.
Across all of the memoirs and accounts of the final days of the last Labour government, one common truth shines through. Everyone who knew what was happening could see that however bad Gordon Brown’s leadership looked on the outside, it was a hundred times worse on the inside.
The hanging question that remains unanswered is why didn’t anyone do anything about it?
David Miliband and Alastair Darling met secretly in a farmhouse to talk about it. James Purnell resigned unilaterally. Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt circulated a letter when it was too late.
Despite their fears and insider knowledge of what was really happening in government, no one at the top table organised any concerted action in defence of the party and country’s best interest. No matter what they thought the consequences might have been, could things really be worse than they are now?
The final legacy of Gordon Brown within the Labour party will be to make the party more ruthless in dealing with leaders who do not measure up.
Many of those still in and around the top of the Labour party bear the guilt of not acting last time. Talking to some of them at conference, the best description of their reaction is rueful.
What is clear is that they know something should have been done. This collective experience and its consequences will lower the threshold for action next time.
If the shadow of the party’s over-indulgence of Gordon Brown’s failings sets a context, then its Ed Miliband’s own political next steps that will maximise the danger.
A reshuffle is coming. The key questions are what amount of blood will be spilt and how will the victims react?
Reshuffles are difficult balancing acts at the best of times, even if the leader is in total command of the party. When they have a tenuous grip, reshuffles can become more of a threat to his or her own survival than a positive statement of leadership.
If Ed Miliband wields the knife widely, he will create a ready-made cadre of leading malcontents, despatched to sit behind him on the back benches, sharpening knives of their own, waiting for the moment to plunge them into his back.
If Miliband acts sparingly, then it will likely be seen as a sign of weakness. It was no secret at conference that the view within his circle of advisers is that the shadow cabinet have underwhelmed this past year. The lukewarm support from several members of the shadow cabinet for their leader’s themes has also been noted.
For Ed Miliband to hold back from re-shaping the shadow cabinet in his own image, despite his views about under-performing colleagues, would be a big statement in itself.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. What is certain is that there will be fall-out which further challenges the leader’s authority.
A party less tolerant of the failings of its leaders and destabilised by internecine conflict from a reshuffle is a dangerous place for Ed Miliband.
But it’s the third of the three dangers which could turn a bad situation into a full-blown crisis.
Next May, London votes in its Mayoral election. It should be a clear Labour win. London’s demographics have been moving Labour’s way for years and even in the depths of the 2010 general election result, Labour still managed to win in the capital.
But we’re going to lose.
Despite everything the government is doing, and his own inaction as Mayor, Boris Johnson is still polling eight points ahead of Ken Livingstone according to the latest YouGov surveys. Worst of all, one in five Labour supporters is going to back Boris.
There has been no stirring of life in Livingstone’s poll rating in months and no sign of anything which will shift this status quo. The candidates are well known by the public, as are their policy positions – what’s to change between now and May next year?
If and when Labour loses in London then there will be a meltdown within the party which will call into question the party’s leadership at all levels.
Two years into Ed Miliband’s leadership, if Labour cannot win the mayoralty in a Labour-leaning city which was one of the few places where the vote held up in 2010, what will be the chances at the general election across the country?
It’s when MPs begin to viscerally fear for their own seats, for their own job security, that leader’s fall. That will be the situation precipitated by defeat in London.
So as people arrive back home from conference and reacclimatise to normal life, the clock is ticking. Unless Ed Miliband can find an electoral boost to replace the inoculation a good conference would have given him, his political health will deteriorate faster in the coming months than the conventional wisdom suggests.
Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.