UK Politics

End-of-year review: Labour

Ed Miliband campaigning in London
Image caption Ed Miliband hopes his energy pledge will make the political weather

Eighteen months away from the general election and leading in the polls, but many Labour supporters will be concerned that it will not be enough to achieve victory.

Ever since the coalition came to power, Labour has attacked the speed and scope of the government's deficit reduction programme which, the opposition claimed, had hindered growth and led to "three wasted and damaging years of flatlining".

The return of economic growth in 2013, particularly in the final few months of the year, presented a significant problem for Labour and a need to shift its political strategy.

That process began in February when the Labour leader Ed Miliband pressed David Cameron at Prime Minister's questions on the issue of living standards, claiming that prices had been rising faster than wages since the government had taken office.

Energy pledge

But it was not until September's Labour Party conference that Ed Miliband struck a chord with the public when he announced that his party would freeze gas and electricity bills for every home and business in the UK for 20 months if it won the 2015 election.

The Conservatives denounced the policy as a "price con" but the former Labour Foreign Secretary Jack Straw says Mr Miliband's announcement marked a change in Labour's fortunes.

"It's been a year of three thirds," he reflects. "The first two thirds were ok but not brilliant and then we had Ed Miliband's speech to party conference which changed the political weather".

The party ends 2013 still leading in the opinion polls, but the leadership will be astutely conscious of the need to press home its cost of living argument, particularly as the economy gathers momentum.

Pollster Deborah Mattinson believes Labour should be worried.

"No party has come from the levels that Labour is polling right now to go on to win an overall majority," she says.

"If I was advising Labour I'd be saying you ought to be doing much better than you are now to be comfortable".

As the general election draws closer, Labour will also need to answer the big questions about its plans to get the deficit down and the implications for the party's tax and spend policy.

All the while pressure is mounting on the party's Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls who, according to Labour insiders, has nine months to prove he is up to the job following his performance during the Autumn Statement, in which which he struggled to make himself heard and his resultant blushing led to #RedEd trending on Twitter.

Union row

A major distraction for Ed Miliband over the summer was the debacle over the selection of a general election candidate in Falkirk.

The accusation of vote-rigging by the Unite union was a major test to his authority as leader and led to the resignation of the party's campaign co-ordinator Tom Watson.

Ed Miliband was forced to act by announcing changes to the political levy that affiliated unions pass on to Labour. But the matter remains far from closed. The GMB union is about to withhold £1m from the party and other unions are considering their next moves too.

Image caption Labour insiders suggest Ed Balls has work to do prove himself

Much will depend on the outcome of a review being conducted by the former general secretary, Ray Collins - now Lord Collins.

But Diane Abbott - sacked as a frontbencher in the autumn - says the leadership has mishandled the issue.

"It's not been good for him (Ed Miliband) but frankly I don't think we've handled it very well. We've gone out on a limb where we could lose all our union funding."

The disagreements were not only consigned to the unions as Ed Miliband took exception to an article in the Daily Mail over the reputation of his father, the Marxist academic Ralph Miliband.

Mr. Miliband accused the newspaper - whose article was headlined "The man who hated Britain" - of lying and in doing so won plaudits from across the political spectrum.

Desert Island

This was also the year that Ed Miliband appeared on Desert Island Discs and Deborah Mattinson believes that, in general, the Labour leader's image among the public is improving, albeit from a relatively low base.

But senior figures believe the party still has work to do.

"It's got to get itself in an effective position over the economy and over what will be a recovery in the country's economic fortunes," Jack Straw argues.

"It needs to clarify what it's doing on health and what Labour has to offer as opposed to what the Conservatives are offering".

If Labour is to achieve an outright majority, its biggest challenge will be to persuade the voters that it has learned the lessons of its 13 years in government and neutralise the coalition claim that Labour was to blame for the depth and length of the worst recession in living memory.

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