Labour must beware the Tories’ ‘Miliband minority’ attack line – it worked before, it could work again

By David Talbot

The country has become rather used to going to the polls. Three times in four years, no less. The hattrick of recent elections ushered in a Conservative majority for the first time in 23 years. The Conservatives were successful in turning the 2015 election into a de facto referendum on a minority Labour government. The attacks on Labour’s supposed dependence on the SNP gained wider resonance because of voters’ deeper suspicion of its leader and the party he led, but the Conservatives’ campaign created a palpable fear of a minority Miliband.

Fast forward two elections and Brexit has created a remarkable Conservative alliance. By making people’s identity, and the values they hold, the central tenet of the past four years of British politics, the Conservative party has fundamentally reinvented itself from Cameron’s modish liberalism.

From its traditional affluent, Shire-dwelling support to ripping through the Red Wall, it has taken the party to the highwater mark of British politics: 14 million votes. This is in and around the number of votes the Labour Party must achieve if it is to win the 2024 election.

The government’s electoral coalition, although mighty, is unstable. That is why it will continue to focus on socially conservative signalling and policies on law and order, national security and cack-handed attempts to reheat Brexit’s culture wars.

Keir Starmer has already learnt many of the painful lessons from the 2019 wipe-out. Firstly, the Labour party must move on from Brexit. The old adage of never taking to a field of battle decided upon by your opponent is a truism for the party’s tortuous machinations over Brexit. As a good opposition, Labour should, of course, hold the government to account on its negotiations and the prospects, or not, of a trade deal. But the wider war has been lost; the UK is leaving the EU and the Remain versus Leave divide is over.

Out of the 60 seats Labour lost in 2019, 52 were in constituencies that voted to Leave the European Union in 2016. But Brexit was secondary to the issue of leadership for Labour. That is why, secondly, the party must emphasis the new. Standing in front of a bare red brick wall in Doncaster with ‘A New Leadership’ festooned across the podium was not an exercise in subtlety.

The focus on new leadership serves two purposes; to signal to the electorate that the party is no longer led by the toxic Jeremy Corbyn, and to lead with its strongest electoral card – its new leader. Even at the height of Miliband’s tenure in 2012, some 63% of voters still said they could not see him as Prime Minister. 55% of voters now say they could see Keir Starmer in Downing Street, and he continues to beat Johnson in approval numbers.

Lastly, focus on the economy. COVID-19 will deliver strife and hardship not seen in a generation. It is an unhoped-for opportunity, but it has allowed Starmer to display all the characteristics that the Prime Minister so visibly does not possess; rigour, empathy, a hard-work ethic and a seriousness to match the gravity of the times. It will define our way of life up to 2024 and beyond.

Labour in 2015 was slow to realise the potency of the SNP alliance attack-line. The media’s frankly relentless fixation on the issue certainly did not help, but the Conservatives have defined the rules of two out of the past three elections – with obvious rewards. Labour must win 124 seats at the next election to have a majority of 1, or 43 seats to deny the government its majority. In a political landscape transformed by COVID-19, Labour may well have a realistic possibility of entering government.

Labour has taken broad, positive steps in its return to power, but it has been felled before from significantly stronger positions by the ruthlessness of the Conservatives’ attacks and framing. Just as it appears to be struggling to define a coherent attack against the new Labour leader, the government may well look north of the border again come 2024. Labour must have the answer to the almost inevitably repeated narrative of ‘minority Miliband’.

David Talbot is a political consultant

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4 Responses to “Labour must beware the Tories’ ‘Miliband minority’ attack line – it worked before, it could work again”

  1. John P Reid says:

    Brexit has created a remarkable Conservative alliance. By making people’s identity, and the values they hold, the central tenet of the past four years of British politics, the Conservative party has fundamentally reinvented itself from Cameron’s modish liberalism.

    No remoaners did that the day after the referendum not accepting the result

    they decided that the identity politics of the tradition working class wouldn’t dare not vote labour (if they knew what was in their best interest they’d always vote labour)

    and the luvvie Liberal alliance caused the working class to say well if that’s your attitude you called our bluff and we voted tory, because at least the Tories may treat us bad but they don’t consider us scum

    saying Starmer is more popular than , Ed Miliband who was always useless is hardly a sign of saying he’s more popular so he’s a success

    Ed Miliband only won the leadership and David miliband didn’t have the decency to admit they’d mucked up Iraq and Andy Burnhams campaign wasn’t up to much as other wise he’d have been the best leader we never had going into the 2015 election

  2. John P Reid says:

    If Starmer is to be the new Neil Kinnock he doesn’t have to have a clause 4 moment he has to have A “Grotesque chaos“ speech moment
    And that chaos
    If the party patting itself in the back as due to the collapse of the libdems labour may win even more seats than before in areas where they weigh the votes
    But labour will lose seats in areas where due to a large area of suburbia there still a few sink estates that labour can rely on to keep a few councillors with working class votes

  3. Anne says:

    Don’t really agree with this analogy. Ed Miliband was in a different time to Kier – he was up against Cameron and this new Conservatism- yes change came with Brexit – this also changed The Tory Party – many from far right parties joined the Tories – changing the Party. Johnson won the big Conservative majority on Get Brexit Done, but time has moved on in a way that none of us foresaw with Covid. Johnson and The Tories have been found wanting on many fronts – ‘found out’ to be a one slogan party. They do not have the competence of the old Tory Party. Starmer has arrived on the scene at the right time – he offers competence and ability. So Miliband verses Starmer operated in different times with different challenges. Starmer is the right man for the current time.

  4. John P reid says:

    Michel foot said to tony Benn,after Benn saying the 1983 election was A, moral victory,as everyone who voted for that manifesto agreed with abolishing the lords, abolishing riot police leaving Nato and the EEC
    no they didn’t agree wutha word of the manifesto they knew wer rent gonna win voted labour out of tribal loyalty as they always had done

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