It can’t have been a happy festive and New Year period in the Miliband household. The front page of the Guardian on Boxing Day will have given the prime minister some seasonal cheer, whilst bringing an abrupt halt to the Miliband’s festive merriment. Putting down his Rubik’s cube, Miliband must have pondered how it could be. Why after a year in which a nascent economic recovery had all but died were the Conservatives and David Cameron polling so well? Basking from the grandstanding in Brussels, the ICM poll placed the Conservatives 6% ahead of Labour with the Prime Minister’s personal polling far outstripping that of Miliband. Whilst accepting that Miliband has a uniquely difficult job in politics, it was impossible to look at that poll and conclude he was doing it well enough.
The gloom continued into the New Year. Unless one of Ed Miliband’s New Year’s resolutions was to ignore absolutely everything going on around him, it was difficult to detect just what his and Labour’s strategy was going into 2012. The tidal swell of disgruntlement against Miliband, already high before Christmas, was turning into a flood. Tory ministers confidently went round briefing that “keeping Ed Miliband in his job must be one of our biggest priorities this year” whilst leading Labour commentators openly discussed new leadership.
Fast forward to today. What a difference 5 months has made. This May’s local elections were long held as a pivotal moment for the new Labour leader. Last year the party won 866 seats; it was a disaster. It was the first time since 1979 that a governing party got a higher share of the vote in the first set of local elections than it did in the previous general election. With 37% of the vote, Labour not only polled behind the Conservatives, it got a lower share of the vote in its first electoral test that Michael Foot did in his. When you consider that in 1999, a mere two years after a landslide general election defeat, the Conservatives gain 1,379 councillors – the results are put into context.
This May the party won 854 seats. It was a triumph. The previous May 9,460 seats were up for grabs – compared to just 4,800 two weeks ago. In most of the places that Labour needs to win if it hopes to form a government, Labour progressed. Milton Keynes, Southampton, the Medway towns, Harlow and Thurrock all showed shoots of a Labour recovery. The results shattered the idea that victory is possible without enticing Conservative voters in the south back to Labour.
But it is not just electoral success that has breathed new life into the oft-forlorn Labour leader. A confidence has emerged, an arrogance even, that has not been on display previously. He regularly bests David Cameron over the dispatch box, with the revelations this Friday to the Leveson Inquiry confirming the success of his Murdoch strategy.
For sure, ministerial incompetence has certainly smoothed the process. Up until the Budget the government’s polling and positioning was remarkably robust. Since then it has become a coalition of the damned, stumbling from one disaster to the next seemingly unable to put down anchor on good ship Tory.
Miliband has rarely done as badly as many have suggested, including, indeed, myself, so it would be rash to proclaim this as a new dawn – to borrow a phrase. But after a difficult first 18 months as leader, Miliband has started to convince even his sternest critics that he can outright win the next general election. His assured performance in the Commons during the Queen’s Speech debate last week, surely his best yet, and his bettering of Cameron at PMQs, whilst having little impact beyond SW1, will reassure and inspire the foot soldiers needed to knock the doors come 2015.
No, it is the emergence of a newly confident Ed Miliband that is so refreshing. Cameron has, until very recently, looked every inch the established Conservative Prime Minister. The revolutionary zeal that characterised his first two years was due to give over to ‘quiet competence’. Sadly, for him, both elements of that phrase have been sorely lacking. Cameron’s born to rule demeanour doesn’t mean a right to rule. Miliband has rightly scented blood, and as bad as he was over the festive period; let’s see how good he can get in the months ahead.