by Atul Hatwal
It’s all beginning to feel very 2009. A weakened leader, panicking backbenchers and a febrile media have combined to generate the biggest Labour leadership crisis since the fag end of Gordon Brown’s ailing premiership.
Now, as then, the loyalist response is to perpetuate some easy “myths.” Though that’s the polite term. Here are the two biggest whoppers:
1. This is all the media’s fault
This was the line peddled on morning news shows and has been widespread across Labour’s Twittervist base.
But, as several journalists have pointed out, from the Guardian’s Rafael Behr to the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman, the reason this is being written up as a crisis is that Labour MPs have been privately complaining about Ed Miliband’s leadership to the journalists for months. In some cases, years.
MPs that have been on air in the last 24 hours, mouthing supportive platitudes, are among some of the most well-known serial lobby complainers.
The reality is that putative leadership campaigns have been organising for months. Leadership contenders have been positioning themselves, ready for the expected Labour defeat. Those rumours of an accommodation between Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham on a joint leadership ticket, or some commitment on second preference votes, have been circulating for over a year.
Anyone saying that this is purely a confection by the media, or froth, is being economical with the actualité.
Here’s a test: how many shadow cabinet members have made a specific point of going on air to defend the leader? Not as part of a pre-planned photo-opp where they have no choice but to field questions on the leader, but have sought out the media, even when they had no press events planned, to stand up for Ed Miliband?
By my count, the answer is a big fat zero.
On the Today programme this morning, the best that the loyalists could field was Peter Hain. Not only an ex-cabinet minister, but someone who is standing down at the next election. This tells us all we need to know about the esteem in which the shadow cabinet and shadow ministerial ranks hold their leader.
2. Ed can turn this around, he just needs time
In the last parliament, when a crisis approached the point of no return, Gordon Brown would meet backbenchers and play the listening card.
He’d talk about how he understood their concerns about his leadership, how he valued their opinion and how he would take on board their suggestions. He’d thank them “for all that they did” and commit to being a better Gordon.
The problem was that the public didn’t want Gordon. They had already made their mind up. And for that small cohort of voters who might possibly have been persuaded, Gordon didn’t follow through on his promises of change anyway. How could he? How can a grown man, a professional politician of several decades standing, suddenly become a different person?
The whole charade was absurd.
But it did, just, keep Gordon in the top job until the electorate passed judgement. So expect something similar from Ed Miliband’s operation over the coming days.
Briefings will emerge about how he’s reached out to backbenchers and feels their pain. Some moaners will be pleased as punch that they’ve had fifteen minutes with the leader and will say as much to the journalists. The crisis will pass, Ed will turn it around; that’s what the line will be.
And it will be as believable as when Gordon’s people gave it.
What has happened over the past few days and weeks is not some freak occurrence. It’s been coming for literally years. It’s what happens if a party refuses to address the electorate’s twin concerns on the issues that will matter most at the ballot box: the economy and leadership.
For months now, Labour has trailed by double digits on both issues and no opposition has ever won an election from such a position.
Failure to address these public doubts has left the Ed Miliband’s political immune system so weak that any random sniffle, something which should have been easily fended off such as forgetting a couple of paragraphs of a speech delivered from memory, will land him in the electoral equivalent of intensive care.
On the centre right of the party, there has been no shortage of voices predicting exactly what has come to pass.
Back in January 2011 – almost three years ago – I wrote about the dangers of not addressing public fears about Labour’s spending plans and the need for Ed Miliband to demonstrate his leaderly credentials.
At Uncut, since 2011 we’ve posted the best part of 100 articles warning that unless the fundamentals on leadership and the economy are tackled and Labour moves back to the centre, as the election draws near, the poll lead will evaporate and crisis will engulf the party.
Well, here we are.
Make no mistake, the crisis is real. The journalists aren’t lying; the Labour MPs protesting that there is nothing to see here, they are the ones not being straight about what’s really going on in the Labour party.
And no, Ed won’t turn it around, because he has demonstrated a singular unwillingness to answer voters’ questions on Labour’s approach to spending or challenge Labour’s vested interests to show voters that he would be a strong and independent prime minister.
The squalls buffeting Labour’s leader at the moment might pass, there might even be some revival in the polls – particularly after the Conservatives lose Rochester and Strood later this month – but the weaknesses will not have been addressed and so inevitably, the crisis will flare up again; most likely around the time of the Autumn Statement in December, when the economy will return to the centre of political debate.
It’s going to be an agonising six months to the general election.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut