Landale Online: Labour's year

By James Landale
Deputy Political Editor, BBC News

Image caption,
Ed Miliband is said to be focused on the political "long game"

Yes, it has been a tough time for Labour.

Gordon Brown began the year facing yet another challenge to his leadership. He wooed voters by calling one a bigot. And finally, after 13 years of power, the party was ejected by an unforgiving electorate.

But it has not been all bad. No-one won the election. The Tories were forced into coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Labour secured a respectable tally of 253 MPs.

The party held a long but largely good-natured leadership contest, family rivalries aside.

The government is embarked on unprecedented spending cuts that will make it hugely unpopular. Labour, however, is ahead in the opinion polls, facing elections in May - for local councils and devolved assemblies - where it should do rather well.

And on top of that, Mr Miliband and his partner have been blessed with a child. So for a freshly minted leader of Her Majesty's Opposition, what is not to like?

Basil Brush?

Well, quite a lot actually. Mr Miliband ends the year accused by his critics - within his party and without - of underwhelming leadership, of poor performances in the Commons and in the media, of failing to provide a clear sense of where he wants to take his party.

To some voters, he is just the bloke who shafted his brother - David - over the leadership. His opponents say he looks like Gromit. David Cameron calls him Basil Brush.

Much of this comes from Mr Miliband's decision to play the long game, choosing not to rush his fences and instead develop his plans slowly.

He has a clear strategy to try to win over leftish Lib Dem supporters unhappy with the coalition. He intends, his aides say, to be tough on Clegg, tough on the causes of Clegg.

He plans to develop his critique of the prime minister, accusing him of breaking promises and being out of touch with ordinary voters. And the row over Vince Cable has allowed him to rub salt into coalition wounds.

But Mr Miliband knows he faces some tough decisions in the New Year. How does he get a hearing from an electorate much of which is no longer listening?

How does he counter the idea in many voters' minds - encouraged by the Tories - that the economic mess is Labour's fault and it would be making the same cuts if it was in office?

How does he make Labour relevant again at a time when any political debate that matters seems to take place only within the coalition?

To answer these questions, Mr Miliband and his team are struggling with two dilemmas. Should they look backwards and accept some blame for the economy so they can earn the right to challenge the government's cuts?

Or should they just draw a line and move on? And should they follow Tony Blair's rule book and seek some kind of confrontation with the party to signal their direction of travel? Or should they look for some other less aggressive stroke?

None of this is easy stuff. One consolation for Mr Miliband though is that he will not have to discuss it with his brother. David Miliband has chosen, perhaps wisely, to spend Christmas with his in-laws in the United States.

Ed Miliband is one of those unfortunate people whose birthday falls over Christmas. You know the thing - fewer presents, less excitement, no one really cares.

So, as the Labour leader turns 41 this Friday, he will be familiar with the feeling that somehow the mood is flatter than perhaps it ought to be.

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