East meets Westminster: Now Ed Miliband has his chance to steal the show

The next three East Meets Westminster columns, from Richard Porritt, review the state of the three main parties, starting today with the Labour party.

THIS time last year there were already mutterings within the Labour party about new leader Ed Miliband’s ability to do the job.

Some of the party faithful and even some high-ranking MPs were talking about the possibility of a coup. Now, unseating a leader of the Labour is close to impossible so unless Mr Miliband had thrown in the towel that was always unlikely. Those close to him during the opening stint of his leadership remained confident that he would grow into the job and had the skills required to test David Cameron. And in 2012 he has proved this – but there is a long way to go before Britain is ready to vote Labour again.

There is no doubt that the party does not have the basis for the broad support across the middle of the political spectrum that it did under Tony Blair. Mr Miliband’s Labour is truer to the party’s socialist roots. It was clear this was going to be the case when he was given the backing of the union block vote to defeat his brother David in the leadership election. But during the last 12 months Mr Miliband has managed to move away from the ‘Red Ed’ tag unfairly given to him by elements of the ring wing press.

But the march of Mr Miliband did not begin in earnest until the Coalition began to stutter when politicians returned to Westminster after the Christmas break. Until this point Mr Miliband and Labour were still down in the polls.

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But then Nick Clegg and Mr Cameron’s grand cross-party project ran aground – mainly, it has to be said, due to Tory blunders – and Labour started to find their feet. And they were – and remain – buoyed by a sudden spike in the poll which will have the Prime Minister waking up in a cold sweat even as he attempts to relax with his family in Spain this summer after a gruelling parliamentary session.

Politicians whose parties are not in power often say they would rather an awful day in government than a good one in opposition – but for Labour to rebuild it needed a stint out of power. The party had become too flabby and many had forgotten the sting of all those years away from Number 10.

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Although several big names from the Blair and Brown years remain, enough have disappeared for issues like Iraq to have finally been put to bed. But the party does not have a clean slate – at every opportunity the Tories remind the country of the dreadful state of the finances when they arrived to take power.

But worryingly for Mr Cameron the public apparently is happy to let the undoubted financial foul-ups of the previous Government go. Since the turn of the year polls increasingly show Mr Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls are becoming a real alternative.

In Suffolk – where Labour have two big target seats – things are less clear. Both Ben Gummer (Ipswich) and Peter Aldous (Lowestoft) have performed well but a bad run for the Conservatives and they face ruin. If there was a general election today they would both probably find it tough to be re-elected. However both recognise this and realise their best hope is to work hard in their constituency and win each vote again one-by-one.

Nationally, Mr Miliband would not be in such a good position if it had not been for the Jeremy Hunt scandal, the ‘omni-shambles’ budget, a double-dip recession and more recently open warfare within the Coalition. Labour’s poll lead is due to dissatisfaction with the Government rather than a strong backing for his opposition. This is not the swell of public support that grew in the run-up to the 1997 election.

But that said Mr Miliband has improved. His early appearances at Prime Minister’s Questions were, at times, shaky. This is not the best arena for an electorate to be swayed on how to vote but these jousts can build a party’s confidence or leave a leader on his knees. He does not have the skill of Tony Blair or the ease and confidence of William Hague but he has had Mr Cameron on the ropes on numerous occasions this year.

With added pressure on Mr Cameron comes added pressure on Mr Miliband. Now he has started to grow in to the job and the party is clambering back to its feet he has to build on the success – or at least the failings of the Coalition.

Being on a high due to others’ failings is only ever going to give you the foundations to be a successful leader.

Mr Miliband needs a good conference this autumn. As usual the speeches of all the party leaders will be scrutinised but this time around the spotlight really will burn down on the Labour leader. If he can seize that moment and begin to convince people to vote for him not just because he appears “better than the other lot” he might just stand a chance. Because all too often people are not quite as brave on the big day as they were mid-term – and Mr Miliband’s biggest opponent come general election 2015 might be the public’s decision that it is “better the devil you know”.

If Labour do not win power at the next election Mr Miliband will probably be forced to quit – and the favourite, would be the other Mr Miliband, his brother David. The current leader knows failing even once at the polls is not an option for him.

In this climate of a bickering Cabinet, the public’s increasing anger at austerity and a Government pulling in at least two different directions, he should be a shoo-in … but things are never that easy and since his resurgence Mr Miliband has yet to be tested. Mr Cameron and his team have enjoyed a successful Olympics and, with a summer break to reflect on the errors of 2012, they will be a much more formidable rival to Mr Miliband – his future rests on whether he can hack it with the big boys.

n Richard Porritt is on Twitter @Porritt.

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