Faced with characteristically impatient questioning by John Humphrys this morning, David Miliband said of his brother Ed: “I am happy to say he is the best man to lead Labour into the next election.” The comments, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, may have been forced by Humphrys’s grilling. But it appears that despite the media speculation about Ed’s performance in recent months, David was right when he added that Ed “will lead Labour into the next election.” That message is echoed by some—limited but illuminating—exclusive private polling among Labour MPs by Prospect.
The only practical threat to Ed’s leadership would be if Labour MPs begin to worry enough about losing their seats at the next general election to move against their leader. We know from his decision to stand against his elder brother that Ed is deceptively ruthless and unlikely to stand down voluntarily. And we know that historically, the Labour party fails to oust its leaders in the brutal way the Conservatives and, lately, the Liberal Democrats do. Instead, Labour takes a curiously sentimental attitude towards under-performing leaders.
In judging Ed’s survivability, then, it is certainly necessary, if not wholly sufficient, to test the temperature of the parliamentary party.
Labour MPs make up one third of the electoral college that decides the Labour leadership, alongside party members and the trade unions. In the final round of the contest in 2010, Ed Miliband famously only won the union section of the college, gaining 59.802 per cent to David’s 40.02 per cent. The elder brother won 54.405 per cent of Labour members’ votes, and 53.436 per cent of the MPs’ votes. Ed received 45.594 per cent of the members’ votes and 46.566 per cent of the MPs’ votes. This meant that overall, 140 Labour MPs ended up voting for David and 122 ended up voting for Ed.
David ended up with 49.35 per cent of the overall vote; Ed won with 50.65. Such was the closeness of the result that had three more MPs put David ahead of Ed, David would have become leader.
The 122 are made up of people who put Ed before David in their choice of up to five votes, in order, for the contenders: Diane Abbott, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls as well as the Miliband brothers.
Avoiding those MPs who were so firm in their support for Ed that they voted for him only, leaving the rest of the ballot paper clear, and those who are now on the payroll, such as whips and shadow ministers, Prospect called half of Labour MPs who ended up voting for Ed: the potential waverers.
In almost all cases using direct mobile numbers, we asked the potential waverers, under conditions of anonymity: “If you were voting today, would you still put Ed Miliband ahead of David Miliband?”
Of the 61 MPs we asked, 15 MPs said yes, 8 refused to comment and 39 failed to call or text back. Of the 15 who answered in the affirmative, one said he “fully” backs Ed, one said Ed is a “good leader” and one said she supports Ed “in 2010, now and forever”, adding, however, that she doesn’t “take anything for granted” when asked if Ed was “safe” as leader for the full parliamentary term.
Of the eight who declined to answer, four said they do not answer such surveys, three said “no comment” and one merely laughed. Five of these said the poll was “unhelpful” or “scurrilous.” The broadly positive response by Labour MPs came, it should be said, in the wake of Ed’s perceived success in forcing Stephen Hester of RBS to give up his one million pound bonus. Such leftist populism may lead to spikes of support among MPs as well as the public, as occurred when Ed led the charge against Rupert Murdoch last summer.
Whether Ed will stand a chance of breaking through with the electorate and positioning his party so it stands a chance at the next election, remains to be seen. Much will depend on the long-term success of his new fiscal policy, the starting point of which, to the anger of the left, is an acceptance of all the government’s cuts. The forthcoming budget on 21 March provides Ed with a major test, and Ed should be praying that Ken Livingstone beats Boris Johnson in the London mayoral election in May.
But Ed has already survived criticism following some ineffective weeks as leader of the Opposition, and it is clear from talking to Labour MPs consistently through the past year that Ed Miliband is, for better or worse, almost certainly safe in the job.
Even the only credible alternative, David Miliband, now appears to agree with that.