Does Ed Miliband have a future as Labour leader?

Ed Miliband

While the immediate threat to Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party may now have passed – dismissed by one senior MP as a ‘four-year itch’ – for many observers there must still be question marks over his future. With the party’s lead in the opinion polls shrinking alarmingly, and its prospects for victory in the 2015 general election in jeopardy, there will inevitably be calls for Miliband to be replaced be a more ‘electable’ figure. But is electability necessarily the most important quality in a party leader?

In his 1996 book Choosing A Leader the political scientist Leonard Stark suggested three criteria by which political parties selected their leaders: acceptability, electability, and competence. Successful leadership candidates must, according to Stark, demonstrate that they are ideologically acceptable to their parties; that they are a credible candidate to become Prime Minister; and that if elected they would be able to implement policy successfully.

With less than six months to go before the general election Labour supporters have good reason to question Miliband in terms of both his electability and his competence. Data published by the polling company YouGov at the beginning of this month revealed that the approval ratings for the Labour leader are now at an all-time low of -55. This most recent slump in his approval ratings merely confirms a longstanding pattern of voters finding Miliband unconvincing, and comes in the wake of data suggesting that the party stands to lose thirty of its Scottish seats and a rapidly disappearing lead in the opinion polls. While the eccentricities of the British electoral system mean that the Labour Party will not need a clear lead at the ballot box next May to emerge as the largest party in the House of Commons, few supporters of the party will view these polls with anything other than profound unease.

While it may be too early to judge whether Miliband would be able to implement policy successfully, some within his party must surely harbour doubts about Labour’s readiness for government. There is little sign that the policy reviews initiated several years ago are likely to produce a detailed plan for government – with policy chief Jon Cruddas referring to the leader’s office as a ‘dead hand’ – and Miliband’s memory lapse during his recent party conference speech is only the most recent example of the party’s failure to articulate a clear and coherent position on the future of the public finances.

However, it is Stark’s third criteria – acceptability – that may explain his continued survival as Labour leader. As the political blogger Hopi Sen pointed out last week, maintaining the party unity was a key objective for Miliband, and has been one of the unacknowledged successes of his leadership. Miliband has often been portrayed as ‘Red Ed’ – an old-school Labour Party figure, dependent on the trade unions – but the reality is rather more complicated. While his success in the 2010 leadership ballot did ultimately depend on the support of the trade unions, Miliband has since worked to reform his party’s relationship with the union movement. Miliband also worked as a special advisor to Gordon Brown in the 1990s, and was therefore near the heart of the New Labour project. He is by no means a straightforwardly ‘red’ figure.

As party leader Miliband has managed to bandage (if not heal) the internal divisions between Blairites and Brownites, and has succeeded in making different factions of the party feel as though they are being listened to. If Miliband has been guilty of failing to articulate a clear narrative around his leadership, he has been equally successful in attempting to move his party forwards from the New Labour years without inciting internal strife. This ability to maintain party unity is, as Stark pointed out in 1996, often as valuable a commodity as electability, and stands in sharp distinction to the bitter internal battles that Labour has fought during previous periods of opposition.

Whether maintaining party unity will be sufficient to secure an electoral victory in May 2015 remains to be seen. Viewing the current state of the Labour Party from this perspective is a useful reminder, however, that electing a different or more decisive leader in 2010 would not necessarily have produced a better outcome for the party. If other candidates might have appeared more obviously electable, this does not mean that they possessed the same ability to hold the party together in opposition. Others might have appeared more superficially attractive proposition for the electorate, but would they have been able to lead a divided party to victory?

Dr Matthew Francis
Department of History

Photo credit: Photo used courtesy of a creative commons licence.