How likely is a change before the election?
Thursdayâ€™s by-election win notwithstanding, the last month has not been a good one for Ed Miliband. Labourâ€™s lead in the polls has evaporated and heâ€™s been seen to under-perform both in response to the Autumn Statement and at PMQs, resulting in hostile off-the-record briefings from Shadow Cabinet members, never mind backbenchers or commentators.
Thatâ€™s inevitably led to speculation about his future as Labour leader, and as speculation is â€“ in both senses â€“ the essence of betting, itâ€™s worth looking at the question.
Political leaderships are lasting for shorter periods than was once the case. Churchill, Attlee, Gaitskell, Wilson, Heath and Kinnock all remained leader of their party after losing an election. None of the leaders of the two main parties has done so since 1987. The Lib Dems got through three leaders in the last parliament after the three before Kennedy each served a decade. Will Miliband therefore join IDS and Ming Campbell in being booted out without even contesting a general election? No, in all probability, he wonâ€™t. There are various reasons for this.
The first one is institutional: itâ€™s difficult to replace a Labour leader who doesnâ€™t want to go. Unlike the Tories, where MPs can spark a leadership challenge with some private letters, the Labour mechanism is cumbersome and public; it could have been designed to prevent an open challenge.
Pressure can still be brought to bear but pressure â€“ as Blair and Brown demonstrated â€“ can be resisted. Serious pressure can only be brought about by actions which tend to damage both the party and the challenger or his allies, for example resignations or critical speeches. If Miliband is determined to stay then the initiative lies with those who would oust him, and there could be a cost involved in acting. Letâ€™s not forget that he is someone who saw firsthand a master class from Brown in backroom manoeuvring â€“ a fact not unconnected to Milibandâ€™s election as leader in the first place.
The second reason is the political environment. Cameronâ€™s EU veto may have given both him and the government short-term boosts, but the likelihood is that Labour will be back in front in the polls come the New Year. Labour polled well enough in Feltham and Heston, and is likely to gain plenty more seats and councils come May. The fly in the ointment may well be Boris being re-elected in London but that, as with Scotland last year, will be put down to local factors. There will always seem to be a good reason not to act.
The third reason is the lack of alternatives. One factor that saw Hague through a full parliament while IDS was felled was Hagueâ€™s ability at PMQâ€™s. Another which is often now overlooked was the lack of an obviously better, acceptable, alternative. The big beasts from Majorâ€™s government left the scene quickly or were tainted in some way. It was never obvious that the hassle of a leadership change was worth it.
Likewise now. David Miliband may well do a better job but would the other parties and the commentators give him a chance? The jokes write themselves, and besides, he above all others is unlikely to be party to a coup against his brother. Ed Balls has the combativeness but has comprehensively lost the economic argument so far on the question of stimulus vs austerity. Yvette Cooperâ€™s star is rising but how much of that is down to genuine ability and how much to wishful thinking and under-exposure is unclear. Itâ€™s worth noting that she failed to finish off Theresa May when May was under pressure. Besides, how can any of them act against Miliband when they are in his Shadow Cabinet?
A fourth, and perhaps crucial reason is cultural. Miliband speaks Labourâ€™s language even if he doesnâ€™t speak it very well. Labour, especially at the higher levels, is now a very middle-class party; The Guardian in action. In the absence of anyone else articulating a better vision, Miliband writes and speaks the critique Labour itself wants to hear. He might not be making the sort of connection with the working class floating vote that Thatcher or Blair did (a demographic which it has to be said none of the parties has recently campaigned effectively to), but it is not they who oust leaders midterm.