Labour should be soaring, but it is stuck with dead hand Miliband

Not his finest hour. PA Wire

“Brand Miliband” has had a rough few weeks and is looking pretty sad, at a time when the opposition leader should be riding high in the polls against a relatively unpopular prime minister who has just suffered a string of ordinarily catastrophic defeats over Europe and is reeling (well, he certainly ought to be) over his formerly close association with a convicted criminal.

But look at the score board. The latest YouGov polling found that the Labour leader was trailing the prime minister by 23 points to 33. It won’t have helped Ed’s peace of mind to have read that his brother David, currently running the International Crisis Group, tops the poll on 35 points.

Then at the weekend, as Miliband was launching Labour’s landmark plan to devolve £30bn of Whitehall spending to local councils, everyone was more interested in reading about comments by Labour policy chief Jon Cruddas, that a “dead hand” at the centre of the party was blocking real reform plans in favour of “cynical nuggets of policy to chime with our focus groups and press strategy”.

Would that be the same strategic genius that came up with having Miliband pose with a copy of The Sun to cash in on World Cup interest? Or the same genius who thought having Miliband pose for pictures while chowing down on a bacon sandwich would make him look more of a man of the people?

But ironically, it may be that all this bad PR has meant his position as Labour leader is starting to look just a little more secure. Certainly the bad press has led to a circling of the wagons as his faithful inner circle have mounted a strong defence.

Missing an open goal

We thought fate might have dealt Miliband a kind hand with the conviction of Andy Coulson for conspiring to hack phones. This put David Cameron straight on to the defensive. His apology for employing Coulson was a free kick for Miliband. After all, he had pressed for an inquiry into phone hacking when Cameron initially didn’t.

But faced with an open goal, Miliband fluffed it. His date-by-date examination of the warnings Cameron allegedly failed to heed was plodding. You could almost hear the groans of despair from the Labour benches as their leader let them down once again.

Meanwhile, less than a year out from the election, Miliband is still not seen as prime minister material. In the latest Ipsos MORI Political Monitor poll, he scored just 22% on readiness to be prime minister – feeble by comparison with the numbers Tony Blair (56%) and David Cameron (43%) were hitting a year out from their respective elections. Even worse, the poll also revealed that 49% of the public thought there should be a change of Labour leadership.

While this might be a popular view, those in the party who want a change must also realise they have left it far too late. There no obvious candidate to take over from Miliband, and no evidence of a serious leadership challenge on the horizon.

Circling the wagons

Realising the bind they are in: an increasingly unsaleable leader with no obvious replacement and the clock ticking towards the next election, the decision appears to have been taken to rally round Miliband. David Blunkett voiced his unwavering support: there will be no leadership challenge, he said, because Ed is the leader and he will win the next general election. When asked what will happen if Labour doesn’t win, he warned that Labour could be in the wilderness for 15 years while the Tories made “devastating” changes. Another grandee to rally to the cause has been Neil Kinnock, who has accused the rightwing press of targeting Miliband because it knew he was bold and seen by the press as a threat to Tory victory hopes.

Meanwhile the up-and-coming brigade, as represented by Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna, have also come out in a show of solidarity.

But will this be enough? Cruddas’s criticisms certainly made more headlines than any pro-Miliband messages at the weekend, while Peter Mandelson’s recent description of Miliband as “the leader we have, therefore the leader I support, and somebody who I believe is capable of leading the party to victory” was equivocal, tempting us to read between the lines on the “leader we have” part. While supporting Miliband, Labour stalwart Alan Johnson conceded Ed is not as able to connect as strongly" with people as David Miliband can. Another indication of the “wrong brother” syndrome which has been hanging around like a bad smell ever since Ed beat David for the leadership.

Wanted: drover’s dog

But changing the leader so close to the election would be a huge risk for Labour. There are very few cases in where it has been successful; to find one, in fact, we have to look 30 years back to the other side of the world.

In 1983, former union leader Bob Hawke challenged Bill Hayden for the leadership of the Australian Labour Party just before the election. Hawke went on to win what became dubbed the “drover’s dog” election – when beaten, Hayden quipped that the previous government was so unpopular that “a drover’s dog could lead the Labour Party to victory”. True or not, Hawke became the most popular Australian prime minister ever.

Britain’s coalition government has been unpopular, but this doesn’t mean that a Labour win is a certainty; this is no “drover’s dog” moment for Miliband. With a sustained economic recovery in progress there is a greater feeling of confidence. In any case Labour knows that it cannot jettison the coalition spending cuts if it wants a sustained recovery. The next parliament will be testing for whoever wins; that will be the real test of leadership character.