Ed Miliband: How much trouble is he in?

By Chris Mason
Political correspondent


As one of his MPs resorts to colourful language to describe his leadership style and others fret about Labour's ability to set the agenda, exactly how much trouble is Ed Miliband in?

Ed Miliband is a "ruthless bastard," writes a Labour MP.

As if the rough patch Labour has had in the last few weeks wasn't enough, you might be thinking, now this.

But, the author of these words, the former frontbencher Tom Harris, meant his remark as a compliment.

"The kind of steel" within Ed Miliband, Mr Harris writes in the Daily Telegraph and his "courage," is vital for Labour's success.

This glowing reference for the Labour leader comes from an MP with no need to indulge in a spot of brown nosing.

Tom Harris recently stood down as a shadow minister because he was struggling to juggle his job with his family commitments.

But his testimonial to Mr Miliband's apparent ruthless streak comes after a week of public grumbles from Labour MPs suggesting the party had lost its voice, reduced to a summer stupor while hyperactive coalition ministers, from the prime minister down, dominated the airwaves.

'Shout louder'

Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham told the Guardian Labour must "put its cards on the table" and produce attention-grabbing policies by next spring or risk losing the 2015 election.

The party, Mr Burnham said, must "shout louder and speak in a way that captures how people are feeling and thinking."

Labour backbencher George Mudie weighed in, telling BBC Radio 4's The World At One that the party was "slightly hesitant and confused" and not "setting the agenda".

And, to boot, former whip Graham Stringer said: "The real worry is the almost deafening silence there has been from the shadow cabinet in a time of the year which is traditionally a ripe time for the opposition to attack the government."

Unfortunately for Labour, when a shadow minister broke that silence and did make headlines, he did so for all the wrong reasons.

Shadow Immigration Minister Chris Bryant was forced to backtrack and climb down after the bungled briefing of a speech.

Internal grumbling

So how worried should Ed Miliband be? And how much of this is down to the fact it is August, known by journalists as the silly season?

Westminster in August is a curious place. As a reporter, it can seem like every other phone call you make triggers that tell-tale sign that the person on the other end is on the beach, and even less inclined to talk to you than they might normally be: The foreign dial tone.

The lack of much news means those stories that are about can be given the megaphone treatment and get much more attention than they would at any other time of the year.

But, with many people on holiday, there may be fewer people about to listen to that megaphone.

Labour will hope most people have barely noticed this internal grumbling. And most probably haven't.

Two things, though, are striking.

'Bigger problem'

Firstly, in a binary political system, with a government and an opposition, if one side is seen to be up, almost by definition the other side appears to be down.

Secondly, the coalition in general, and the Conservatives in particular, have sharpened up their political messages, on, amongst other things, welfare and immigration.

Labour's lead in some opinion polls appears to have narrowed.

And what appears to be the beginnings of good news on the economy is good news for the coalition too, and so tricky for Labour.

For Deborah Mattinson, a former senior aide to Gordon Brown, who now runs her own polling company Britain Thinks, what is happening is indicative of a bigger challenge for Labour.

"I think in a way it's symptomatic of a bigger problem which is an apparent lack of an overarching strategy," she told Radio 4's The World Tonight.

"What voters need to hear is some real clarity about what Labour stands for, what Labour believes, how Labour now would be different from how Labour has been before. And that needs to be set out with absolute clarity in a language that people understand."

In short, a spot of internal bickering in the dog days of August is probably something Ed Miliband can bat away, and no one is suggesting his leadership is in any danger.

But a lingering impression in the long term that his vision is fuzzy and people aren't sure what he, and Labour, stands for, would be far, far trickier and much more significant politically, with a general election now less than two years away.

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