Labour tears itself apart over the 'Ed problem'. So can he unite his team?

This was supposed to mark the end of Labour's long wait.

They told us it was the moment when the party's policy banner would unfurl and the Ed Miliband project would begin to make sense. Thursday was to be a day of delivery. But in a week of English World Cup defeats, any sense that Labour was bucking the national mood and charting its own convincing path to victory seemed further away than ever.

The venue was chic and modern – the Rich Mix studios in east London, home of a charity where young people gather to make music and dance. In a handsome theatre, copies of a smart 250-page paperback produced by the independent Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), entitled The Condition of Britain, were placed on every seat, like hymn books in a church.

They contained a stream of radical policy ideas for building more houses, for improving childcare, devolving powers, getting young people off benefits and into good jobs and for re-establishing the link between benefits and contributions. Responsibility, contribution, devolution, prevention were its cleverly woven interlocking themes. It was a bible on how to reinvigorate social democracy in an age of austerity, a big picture story that many in Labour wanted to adopt, pretty much lock, stock and barrel, as the basis for the party's 2015 election manifesto.

As Miliband prepared to speak, however, he did so with minds elsewhere. His own dire personal poll ratings had cast a big shadow and added to a pre-existing mood of fatalism among many of those present.

"Can I speak to you off the record?" said one senior party figure, who went on to decry, in hushed tones, problems with "the leadership". Another, flicking through the book, noted that it was an event "not so much about the Condition of Britain but the Condition of Ed".

Others muttered about a "desperate" and "grim" atmosphere. No one seemed wholly upbeat, not even Miliband himself, who admitted that the odds were against Labour, though he thought they would overcome them.

Another figure with authority in the party said he still did not know whether Miliband would accept much of the IPPR programme, or whether he would reject it. "It depends on which Ed Miliband you are talking about," he said. "Will it be the Ed who is bold, who really wants to change things? Or will it be the one who is defensive, cautious and listens to the focus groups? Is our leader the guy who learned his craft sitting on Gordon Brown's lap for a decade or is he the bloke who is prepared to change the game?"

From beginning to end the question was unresolved. There was a party leader on stage and a policy programme on seats but no one knew what the relationship was between the one and the other. That morning, Labour had briefed the press that it would accept one of the IPPR's 30 or so big ideas – to end out-of-work benefits for about 100,000 18- to 21-year-olds and replace them with a less expensive means tested allowance if they went into training.

To those wanting a big, broad, new story to tell about the condition of Britain, their party's response was a disappointment. "So this is it," said one activist. "A policy designed to reassure the public that we, like the Tories, don't like benefit scroungers. Where's the big new offer there?"

Marcus Roberts, deputy general secretary of the Fabian Society, observed that "shifting £65m from jobseekers' allowance to non-vocational qualifications does not reimagine social democracy" and said victory in 2015 required more, including "radical change in policy and organisation alike".

Miliband's team blame the right-wing press for a swirl of anti-Ed feeling and say that even the liberal papers are now following their agenda because a narrative has been created that they cannot resist. Even the departing Newsnight frontman Jeremy Paxman stuck in the knife on his final show on Wednesday night, saying Miliband's poll scores showed he "has about as much appeal as a flatulent dog in a lift".

The leader's team argue back at those who say he is indecisive and weak, saying he has taken on Rupert Murdoch, the banks, and the energy companies, promising a price freeze on gas and electricity bills until 2017. Yesterday the former party leader Neil Kinnock – who backed Ed over his brother David in the leadership contest of 2010 – joined a fightback by loyalists, after former Labour home secretary David Blunkett also threw his support behind his leader.

Kinnock told the Observer that Miliband would prevail, because he had all the strengths necessary to win and had good messages to boot. "A hostile press, which thought he was a soft target, have not forgiven him for proving them wrong," he said, adding that "the vindictiveness will continue. It won't stop him – his genuine strengths of thought, action and toughness will get through and help to win victory for Labour."

Kinnock and Blunkett, like most others, know that Labour's position is far from desperate, and a long way from unrecoverable. It is still ahead in most polls, albeit narrowly and with the trend edging in the wrong direction. An Opinium survey for this paper puts the party on 35% to the Tories 31%, Ukip's 17% and the Lib Dem's 7%.

But whatever his spin doctors say, there are deep-seated problems and divisions within Miliband's team that are serious, and hampering efforts to present a united front or indeed much of a front at all. The leader is being pulled in different directions by those such as Jon Cruddas, head of the policy review, and Andy Burnham and Hilary Benn on one side, who all want to be bolder, and those who Miliband has put in charge of general election strategy such Douglas Alexander and Gordon Brown's former aide Spencer Livermore who, their critics say, want a safety first approach.

One frontbencher said the party now had masses of radical policy on offer but was being held back by an election team dominated by Brownites who wanted to run a mile from most of it and instead believed in setting up endless tactical "dividing lines" with the Tories over issues such as Europe. "We are at the mercy of Brown people who lost it for us last time and think we can crawl over the line by doing nothing much at all," said one senior figure.

Nick Pearce, the well-regarded director of IPPR, appeared to take a swipe at the cautious approach on Thursday saying the last thing Labour could afford to do was try "to come back in and spin the wheel again with more targets" and the rest.

There are tensions too between shadow chancellor Ed Balls, keeper of the purse strings, and Alexander, that go back to the dark days of Brown's premiership. Some among Labour's small number of business supporters also worry that the party looks "anti-business" with its plans to cap energy prices, reintroduce a 50p tax rate and impose a mansion tax. Shadow cabinet ministers brief on policies these days, only for others to trash them behind the scenes. There are camps within camps, and wheels within wheels, even within the press operation itself, which tries to spin that all is well.

Miliband's inner circle can say the problems are all got up by the press, but it is hard these days to find young party workers who in private are really inspired. Instead they can see blockages caused by disunity over policy and tactics. Mark Ferguson, editor of LabourList, speaks for many when he says the party still lacks a story that can reverse poll trends and motivate the troops. "No longer can anyone argue that Labour are heading for victory as long as errors are avoided and a safety first approach is adopted. No one can allow that kind of complacency any more." He adds: "Labour faces an existential crisis as too many of those we've considered 'our voters' question what and who we're for."

In the next few weeks Labour will produce more policy reports on how to stimulate growth and devolve power to the cities and local government, before its national policy forum next month and party conference in September.

The question for Miliband, as he seeks to pull things round, is whether he can use these to unite his party behind a clearer vision, or whether more policy ideas will just fuel more disunity and doubts about whether he is the man for the job.

Powered by article was written by Toby Helm, for The Observer on Sunday 22nd June 2014 00.05 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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