It cannot have been the most welcome of interventions by a party elder, coming on the eve of TUC conference and a tricky moment for Miliband in his critical party reform agenda. Even less so to have chosen as his medium Labour’s favourite bête noire newspaper.
But although some things have moved on in the intervening ten days, former Home Secretary David Blunkett’s recent Daily Mail piece certainly succeeded in one thing: he correctly identified the three areas where Labour has shown itself wanting, and in which its overall lack of success this year has surely not helped Miliband’s personal poll ratings, now standing at an historic low.
And they are these: its struggle with union leaders – as opposed to their members, who Uncut demonstrated last week think differently – over party reform; its recent foreign policy disaster over Syria; and its constant problem since the last election, the economy.
On party reform, Miliband certainly seems doing the right thing. It is a difficult path, but he stood his ground last week, we can only hope that that continues next week at party conference. He deserves the party’s praise and support, as even Times columnist and former Tory MP Matthew Parris acknowledged this weekend.
The problem he has is the other two areas.
First, it looks to be too late to recoup the losses on Labour’s Syria stance.
It is ironic that he same subject that gave rise to Obama’s now-legendary “red lines” also gave rise to the crossing of some red lines within our own party. There are some who will never forgive Miliband, although, to be fair, they are surely in the minority.
Whether you take is as an unintentional fumble or a cynical way to score party political points at a time when statesmanship was called for, it has been a watershed; one which has left Miliband consolidated in some sections of his party, yet diminished in the minds of opinion-formers who have spent the last three years treating him with polite respect, if not a warm embrace. The fickle country, despite not being keen on war, has surely yet to decide what it thinks about Labour’s handling of Syria, but sure-footed it has not been.
Bizarrely, probably the biggest influence the Labour leader has had in the last three years on either British or world affairs was a question of domino effect: his party’s declining to support the government in the Syria vote, in combination with Cameron’s poor management of the parliamentary arithmetic, did for any chance of British intervention to stop the genocide.
Which in turn clearly helped Obama find himself in want of political cover for military action. Which triggered his call for a congressional vote and, later, its embarrassing cancellation thanks to a lifeline thrown to him by, of all people, Vladimir Putin. A morally bankrupt, authoritarian leader whose main agenda is to protect his interests in the country while poking the West in the eye, who Obama has paradoxically made look like a statesman and peacemaker. What a mess.
If a solution is found which truly stops the killing of Syrian civilians – a frankly unlikely prospect, even if the chemical weapons are fully decommissioned – history may just look kindly on Obama and Miliband.
But the current, hindsight-driven, “stopped the rush to war” narrative may, equally, look foolish. Needless to say, there are enough historical precedents of a country’s interests being negotiated away in a short-sighted deal by third parties, as happened in Geneva last week, only to find that the conflagration comes anyway.
Either way, that ship has sailed for Labour.
Second, Labour has spent the last three years umming and aahing about the economy. Last year, as the economy stuttered, various cocks on the Labour side were crowing victory for the “cuts but not too far, not too fast” strategy. They were sure that Britain was in a slump which would last until 2015.
With recent economic data, those cocks have fallen a little silent, these days.
The frustrating fact is that Labour’s economic policy probably would have been better. It would have brought recovery sooner. But politically, “ok, so things may be recovering but we would have done it a bit sooner” is not just a weak position. It is a losing position.
We are arguing about the relative merits of alternative pasts.
As things stand, it is a stretch to see how this can be transformed into a credible economic position, but there are ways of doing it, for which Uncut will be laying out some modest suggestions next week. But one wonders how long Labour can keep repeating “the Tories got it wrong”.
What matters is not whether they did, it is whether anyone believes us any more.
In the end, of those three arenas, in only one are we heading in the right direction: party reform. And that one, vital though it is, is fraught with difficulty. On the one where we can still change course, the economy, we need to radically change our thinking to meet the changed circumstances; that there now remains a fast-vanishing doubt that by 2015 our economy will have returned to a respectable state.
Many years ago Meat Loaf, in a well-known ballad of the day, crooned consolingly that “two out of three ain’t bad”.
But the converse holds true: one out of three ain’t good. This conference needs to change that, insofar as it still can.