A Labour leader being elected on the back of an election loss, through a system of weighted bloc votes, is familiar to anyone who follows UK politics. The 2010 UK Labour leadership election saw Ed Miliband beat his brother David in the fourth round of a hotly contested election by 50.65% to 49.35% in exactly the same way Andrew Little just became leader of New Zealand Labour. Ed Miliband lost the caucus vote and the membership vote but regained all of his lost ground through the affiliates. And it’s proved not exactly fatal, but of such detriment to the party’s confidence in its leader that six months out from the 2015 General Election there has been talk of replacing him.
The Tories in the UK disintegrated any attempt Ed Miliband made to develop his own presence as a political leader in the last four years.
The Tories in the UK disintegrated any attempt Ed Miliband made to develop his own presence as a political leader in the last four years. And they started by, very simply, repeating the fact that his own membership didn’t want him as leader. That his own MPs didn’t want him as leader. It’s immensely difficult to recapture lost voters when you cannot confidently claim the support of your own members. Especially when there’s hard numbers to back up that claim.
The perception that “the wrong brother won” was so acute that David Miliband exited UK politics altogether, as whispers began about his ambitions to claim his “rightful” position. And this was despite David Miliband publicly, repeatedly, insisting he had no designs on the leadership. Even with his departure from the stage, the whispering didn’t stop.
Equally effective was the focus on the role unions played in Miliband’s elevation. It seemed there was no defence to the accusation that Miliband was beholden to union power. It was clear from the result that without them he wouldn’t have been leader. At the same time, Miliband refused to support or condemn an increase in industrial action as the Tories’ public sector austerity programme started to bite . The affiliated unions represent 3,564,277 people in total, or 5% of the total UK population, and yet there was no substantial response which combated the Tory attacks, or comforted the union members.
He promised to reform capitalism but his welfare and immigration policy came to emulate and even in some cases support the Tories.
Policy too, became symptomatic of the malaise. While Miliband can claim victories in his stance over Rupert Murdoch’s attempted monopolisation, his stand against energy companies which wobbled the Stock Market and his promise to sort of renationalise the NHS, they are exceptions rather than the rule. As he attempted to guide his party from defeat to Government in five years, he promised to reform capitalism but his welfare and immigration policy came to emulate and even in some cases support the Tories. Caps on benefits and being ‘tougher than the Tories’ were combined with proposed $20 entry fees to the UK.
In short, people weren’t entirely sure what they were getting, or how it was any different, beyond the presentation, from what they had.
They were not helped by Miliband’s image. The Blair years had changed what the UK expected of their leader. David Cameron was heralded as the ‘heir to Blair’ due to his ability to speak clearly, be mildly self-deprecating and not entirely commit to any sort of policy beyond presenting a good image of himself. Miliband on the other hand suffered from, well, geekiness. His resemblance to Wallace from Wallace and Gromit, his unmanageable hair and particularly his voice became ways of attacking him. He lacked the alpha-male confidence required, which led to hesitation and soundbite mangling.
The problem can be expressed quite simply: “I can’t see him as Prime Minister”.
UK Labour remain neck and neck in the polls, despite being up against the most unpopular Government in two decades. Miliband’s personal ratings are the lowest of any leader of Labour since 1979, lower even than Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, who presided over their 1980’s nadir. The problem can be expressed quite simply: “I can’t see him as Prime Minister”. If that concept, that narrative, is entrenched within the public consciousness early on, it is nigh on impossible to shake. And while it seems Labour may gain a slim majority, or end up as the biggest party, it’s commonly accepted that this is despite Miliband, rather than because of him.
There are clear lessons for Andrew Little. He must find a suitable response to any claims of his leadership’s debt to unions, he must clearly define himself in opposition as opposition in both response and policy, and his media management and presentation must surpass each of Helen Clark’s successors and even eclipse her later years. This will require a higher level of individual leadership and party cohesion than Labour have been used to in the recent past. Because the quality and ruthlessness of the National media operation has not changed, and remains a significant force in establishing the narrative about Little’s Labour Opposition, and a crucial barrier to aspirations of a Labour Government.