Will Labour ever win another general election?

What next for Labour as David Miliband rules himself out of leadership challenge

Labour party leader Ed Miliband
Labour party leader Ed Miliband

In September 2010, according to many perhaps with the help of hindsight, Labour’s chance of winning the 2015 general was lost.

According to those who hold this view, this was when the party’s leadership election result saw the wrong Miliband - Ed not David - chosen by the narrowest of margins, helped by trade union backing.

Ironically the winning Miliband has since changed the voting procedure to one member one vote - including union members - which if it had been in place beforehand would have meant he lost.

Despite his attempts to put some space between him and the trade unions it was to no avail and the ‘Red Ed’ label haunted him throughout the campaign.

The recriminations about the election result which saw David Cameron’s Tory party win a majority began at 10pm on May 7 when the BBC exit poll was produced. It is a moment that will go down in political history as no-one at the time believed it to be true. The irony is it was wrong but had managed to understate the scale of the unexpected Tory majority victory.

By noon on Friday, Ed Miliband had quit. By 12.01 his successors - actually some before noon - were testing the water as future Labour leadership candidates.

They now seem to have been narrowed down to Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt - after David Miliband ruled himself out of any leadership bid on Monday night.

Jeff Overs/BBC/PA Wire Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna
Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna

The former South Shields MP left parliament in 2013 to take a job in New York as president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee so any chance of him taking part would have required him to be parachuted into a new constituency very quickly.

He said: “I am clearly not a candidate in this leadership election. I’m running a global charity. The commitment I have to the job I’ve got doesn’t change due to the result of the election.”

Speaking to the BBC he took a bit of a side swipe at the campaign run by his brother and the Labour party.

He said: “I think that the voters have delivered a very clear verdict. And unless Labour is able to embrace a politics of aspiration and inclusion, a politics that defies some of the traditional labels that have dogged politics for so long, then it’s not going to win.”

He said the choice was “very, very clear” – “either we build on what Labour achieved in 1997 and we have a chance to succeed, or we abandon it and we fail. That’s what’s happened in 2010, in 2015, and it mustn’t happen again.”

Has whoever wins any chance of turning round Labour party fortunes before the next general election in 2020?

Political expert Dr Martin Farr of Newcastle University said: “It’s impossible to know. It could take them a generation to do it, it could be five years. It depends on how the government performs, there are too many variables, but it has been an absolute disaster for Labour.

“I think it started with the wrong leader being picked.”

Dr Farr said not only was the wrong leader chosen, but the length of time to choose Ed Miliband proved a problem.

“It took four months for him to be chosen - which proves what some people are saying at the moment wrong in that Labour should take time to choose its next leader.

“In that time the Coalition got its policies in place and set out its economic agenda.”

And he said it was this agenda which helped see the Tories through to their eventual win.

“It was an effective government. Growth was slower than it could have been but by the time of polling in the run up to the general election the Tories ranked higher than Labour both in perceived economic competence and leadership. If you are ahead in those individual polls in the run up to a general election you are never going to lose.”

While the Tories stuck rigidly to these central issues, throwing in the so-called threat to the UK of Ed Miliband doing some sort of deal with the SNP, Labour seemed to come up with a multitude of policies centred around inequality in Britain.

The intentions were laudable in a country where a poisonous atmosphere has been generated between so-called ‘skivers and strivers’, with all benefits claimants, including those in work, lumped in the ‘skivers’ category.

But it was felt Miliband’s criticism of big business and its contribution to the economic recession was too all encompassing, causing unease in business circles.

Ross Smith
Ross Smith

Ross Smith, director of policy at the North East Chamber of Commerce, summed up the situation. He said: “The North East Chamber of Commerce had many constructive discussions with figures in the Labour party in the last few years and it would be untrue to suggest that the party as a whole is not interested in supporting business.

“However, there was certainly a degree of nervousness around some key policies that may have had unintended negative consequences because they had not been thoroughly thought through, though that’s not to say any party’s policies are perfect.

“There were also some worrying noises from people within the party, although not from the leadership, that certain bad practices were widespread throughout business, rather than perpetrated by a very small minority of firms.”

Looking to the future, Mr Smith said this something that has to be addressed.

“The focus of the party now needs to be clear, that business is essential for creating growth, job opportunities and creating wealth that, in turn, pay for strong public services. It is heartening that in the days since the election that several senior party members have eluded to this,” he said.

Another reason given for Labour’s defeat was the right wing press which launched a sustained attack against Miliband.

Dr Farr said this sort of frontal assault was expected from the tabloids, but he was surprised at the vehemence of the broadsheets in this regard too.

“I’ve never known them to mix up the comment and news articles so much before. It was disgraceful at times.

“However their attack on Miliband had to have some basis. They couldn’t attack him without ammunition. It couldn’t go against the grain of what the British public was thinking - that Ed Miliband was seen as a weak leader as well as their being concerns about how Labour would run the economy.

“Cameron was all too plausible as a Prime Minister. Miliband was not.”

John Stillwell/PA Wire Shadow Minister for Care and Older People, Liz Kendall
Shadow Minister for Care and Older People, Liz Kendall

As a result Labour targets of marginal Tory seats like Stockton South - where there was a 332 majority in 2010 - failed to deliver.

“That result was astonishing - as a former Labour seat with such a tiny majority it should have been a certainty. Yet the MP (James Wharton) actually increased the majority to 5,000.”

As the leadership wannabes jockey into position they are facing scrutiny from all sides of the party and those who support it.

Unlike Dr Farr, GMB General Secretary Paul Kenny called on the party to take some to deliberate before choosing a new leader.

He said: “The Labour Party must now take a period of time to undertake a serious examination of what took place and why.

“Any attempt to reintroduce a quick fix based on nostalgia and a view of the world as it was nearly a quarter of century ago would lead to catastrophe or disaster.”

The latter comment was a dig by Mr Kenny at Lord Mandelson who criticised Miliband for distancing himself from the achievements of New Labour under Tony Blair, urging Labour to return to the Centre ground it occupied.

He also said Labour had an “incredibly unhealthy” dependence on the trade unions, and warned that they - the unions - must not be allowed to “abuse” the party’s forthcoming leadership elections.

The Labour peer described Miliband’s attack on “predatory” capitalists as “completely useless”.

“We were sent out and told to say we’re for the poor and hate the rich, ignoring the vast swathe of the population who exist in between,” he commented.

Mr Kenny said the absurd anti-union remarks made by Lord Mandelson will do nothing but reignite divisions that are completely and totally unconnected to the reasons why Labour lost the election last week.

He added: “A return to new Labour will not recover the Labour Party in Scotland – indeed many would argue that it was new Labour that alienated long time Labour voters and drove them to the SNP.”

Dr Farr added: “Labour does what it always does when it loses - and a form of civil war breaks out. It could do with a period of silence from the unions.”

Of the leadership contenders he says Cooper and Burnham are too closely allied with the failings of the past, while Tristram Hunt, Shadow Education Secretary has shown himself prone to slipping on political banana skins.

However, he says, Umunna - and Liz Kendall in particular - have some potential.

“Liz Kendall has an engaging manner and Cameron is thought to struggled when faced by a female opponent.”

He added: “Whoever becomes leader faces a hell of a task. If the Tories go ahead with proposed boundary changes (The Tories want to cut the number of seats in parliament by 10% to 600) that could leave Labour down by 40 seats further before they’ve even started.”

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