It’s a rollercoaster ride, this one. On the one hand, we continue to have a recovering economy, a relentlessly-downward-trending poll lead and pretty horrific personal polling for the Labour leader. The head of the policy review says “interesting ideas and remedies are not going to emerge through Labour’s policy review”. A well-meant piece on LabourList tries to argue “Why Miliband still matters”. Senior party figures, sensing a possible future leadership contest, are clearly on manoeuvres. The impression of disarray in Labour ranks is hard to avoid.
On the other, we have Michael Ashcroft’s analysis which shows that, surprisingly, Labour is still ahead in the marginals, where it counts. Incumbent parties do not generally increase their vote-share, either (although neither have we had a coalition for 70 years, so who knows).
Wiser heads realise that this is because the election really is still too close to call, ten months out. We can but set out the possible scenarios, without any real idea which will prevail. Whatever the result, the one thing we can say with a reasonable probability is that no-one is going to get a landslide. And this one thing that we can say, the relative closeness of it all, brings its own consequences.
So, those scenarios.
One: Labour has won a majority. Theoretically possible and should always be the public aim but, at this point, surely more prayer than probability.
Two: Labour in minority government or coalition. Whilst not an ideal situation, it is possible to conceive a government that could go the full five years. And it’s better than being in opposition. Risk: “Hollande syndrome”. Government perceived as weak, we promise a bunch of things that we can’t deliver and end up out of government, quite probably for a long time. Note that this syndrome might also happen in Scenario One, but the parliamentary arithmetic here makes it worse.
Three: Labour has lost, Miliband resigns. We explored that in another Uncut piece
here. It’s not pretty: whether or not the Unite-PCS merger goes ahead, or Len McCluskey carries out his threat to disaffiliate from Labour, a much messier transition than 2010 seems certain and a battle for the heart and soul of the Labour Party quite a real possibility. All in the context of a not-yet-bedded-down set of rule changes over who gets to vote for the new leader. Not for the faint-hearted.
Four: Labour has lost, Miliband looks to stay on. This is a scenario which has been the subject of much speculation over recent days. While we must take the Daily Mail’s stirring on this with a pinch of salt, and it is easy to view such things as the feverish imaginings of over-ambitious colleagues with their eyes on the prize, Uncut’s intelligence indicates that it is, on the contrary, a real possibility.
Now think about why.
First, “it depends upon by how many seats” is the obvious response. If Miliband lost to Cameron by one seat, he would almost certainly stay on; he could justifiably point to an improvement in Labour’s lot. If by a lot more, then not. But we cannot simply assume that a loss means a leadership election. And even then, he could “do a Major”: stand in a “back me or sack me” leadership election and win.
Second, like it or not, Labour is still the “nice party” to the Tories’ “nasty party”. We are not good at removing leaders (e.g. Foot, Kinnock); the unceremonious dumping of Iain Duncan Smith after only two years could never have happened in Labour. Whereas the Tories have the 1922 Committee, we do not even have very good mechanisms for leadership challenges; the last leader openly forced to leave, other than after major or repeated election defeat, was probably George Lansbury in 1935.
Third, the scarcity of obviously qualified challengers. The fact that Yvette Cooper is favourite to succeed Miliband (not that, to be fair, such things count for much) is telling: whatever one’s opinion of her personally, it is hard to see how the party could finally move on from the Blair/Brown years with Brown’s favourite husband-and-wife team at its core. Especially if the Tories, by inconveniently winning the election, have also won the economic argument and thus successfully pinned the country’s economic ills on Balls.
Furthermore the 2010 election, and since, has also seen a mass retirement of the old guard; of the big hitters, only Darling and Johnson remain and neither seems to want it. The result is that many potential challengers are far too fresh-faced to make a success of being put in charge of a political party. Finally, we need hardly mention that the incumbent’s brother is no longer even an MP.
Fourth, not only is Miliband genuinely a unity candidate – one of his successes has been to preserve this, albeit perhaps sometimes at too high a cost – but it is clear that the battle to come would be ugly. Unions would still have a big say, and could even swing behind a hard-left candidate (not to mention one for London mayor, which will likely be chosen in parallel). Also, without Miliband, it could even be that a rebellious NEC opted to fudge or even tear up his party reforms; or pronounce them unworkable. Some MPs and unions might just consider a Miliband reprieve the lesser of two evils.
Fifth is the McCluskey factor: while he has made it clear that he is considering Unite’s disaffiliation if Miliband loses the election, one might also imagine a soft-left Miliband leadership being considerably more attractive to him than one of Cooper or another, more centrist candidate. Or than the fast road to political oblivion which would result from his bluff being called. In fact, his Monday speech to the Unite conference rather showed this kind of newly-conciliatory tone. One has the impression of someone biding their time, carefully considering their next move.
Therefore, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a pragmatic McCluskey might be induced to support the status quo after the election. In return for a suitably Faustian quid pro quo, of course.
In short, a Miliband who sewed up a major union or two might not fear the wrath of a Parliamentary Labour Party or membership stacked against him. For him, it would certainly be worth a punt.
The question is, of course, would it be for the Labour Party?
For those of us who lived through Neil Kinnock’s gut-wrenching 1992 election defeat, when we vowed greater ruthlessness in the years to come, it is difficult to see how it could be.
However much the argument’s soothing logic might tempt, and no matter how ugly-looking the alternative.
This post first published at Labour Uncut