Labour and Ed

Ed Miliband won the Labour leadership election due to the votes he received from those beyond the political party – i.e. those who were members of trade unions and/or affiliated organisations. To those unfamiliar with the history of the Labour Party, the idea that non-members can have a say on who becomes leader may sound controversial. I’ll leave it to Labour activists to argue the cases for and against. My observations come as someone who’s never been a member of a political party.

With Ed Miliband as party leader, I can’t help but notice a few parallels with the plight of William Hague when he became Tory leader. Who remembers “Team Hague” and the Baseball hats? Not that I’ve seen Ed Miliband wearing similar. Yet.

The first parallel was the manner of winning. My memory recalls that Michael Portillo was muted as a future leader for the Tories in the run-up to the 1997 general election campaign – one that most people knew Labour were going to win. Then there was the “Were you up for Portillo?” moment. That left Hague, Ken Clarke and John Redwood (who two years previously had challenged John Major in the “put up or shut up” event two years previously, sending his profile skyrocketing) as the front runners. The soundings after the election seemed to show that the parliamentary party wanted Clarke, but that the Conservative Party membership wanted Hague – who was further to the right of the Conservative Party. In the same way, the Parliamentary Party and the Party membership wanted David Miliband but the even wider trade union voters wanted Ed Miliband who at the time was further to the left out of all of the other candidates except Diane Abbott.

Both William Hague and Ed Miliband are intellectually very able. People may not agree with their politics but in terms of their disposition and ‘cerebral capacities’ they are able to deal with very complex and complicated issues…but are more comfortable doing so away from the television cameras & the soundbite tennis that does not allow them to expand on the arguments that, when making full parliamentary speeches has shown they are clearly capable of. For Miliband this was reflected in “Soundbitegate” and that “bizarre” interview on public sector strikes in the summer of 2011. During his leadership, Hague for me didn’t look at ease in the public appearance walkabouts – remember carnival time?

Both Hague and Miliband found themselves leading their parties after defeats that took out large numbers of their parties’ old guards. When this happens, this inevitably leaves a vacuum in the opposition party concerned. To use business-bovine-excrement-speak, Labour is still currently somewhere between the forming and storming phase. Miliband has been fortunate in that most of Blair and Brown’s former top ministerial teams that are not inside his have remained relatively quiet – as has Blair on domestic issues and Brown in general. John Major was the same.

Blair used the “We have to do this because of the mess the Tories left the public services in” line to devastating effect for quite some time – in the same way that the Coalition has been able to use similar lines on the state of the economy and public finances against both Miliband and Ed Balls – both of whom spent time as special advisers in The Treasury and whom the latter was a minister in. Thus they have to be careful with accusations thrown at David Cameron and his time as a special adviser in The Treasury regarding Norman Lamont’s time as Chancellor on all things Europe-related.

On 14 January 2012 Rachel Reeves, Shadow Chief Secretary was quoted in The Telegraph as saying that Labour are not ready to govern.  In part this is a reflection of the manner in which Blair and Brown managed the party under their tenures, as well as the vacuums they left when they exited. Ed Miliband’s victory seems to have taken out one of the figures who could have stepped into the breach – his brother David, who again has a strong intellectual capacity and was highly regarded as a minister for his ability to take on board very complex issues in a very short space of time. David for me also comes across as a more accomplished media performer too.

The Telegraph mentioned in its full interview with Reeves that it thinks that if Miliband does not win the next election, the next Labour leader will come from the 2010 intake. That I think is a sound observation – in part because such an individual is less likely to be ‘tainted’ by the problems within the party in the run up to the 2010 election – such as the infighting, ministerial resignations, the expenses scandal to the more distant issues such as the vote on the Iraq war.

One of the things it’s interesting to note about Cameron’s Cabinet is the presence of two former leaders of the Conservative Party – both Hague and Iain Duncan Smith. Both were utter failures as leaders of their party in that they failed to win general elections – the latter never making it to the 2005 one due to the coup that ousted him. Yet both have roles as secretaries of state where Cameron has given them much more freedom than anything either Blair or Brown did with their predecessors. Perhaps the nature of the Coalition Government along with the general disposition of Cameron and Clegg against micromanaging departments and the structures for dispute resolution mean that micromanaging policy is less of an issue.

Both the Miliband brothers are young enough to make a return to a Cabinet post should Labour get re-elected. As things currently stand, I can’t see Ed Miliband as future prime ministerial material. That’s not to say he won’t grow into the role – just doing so in the burning bright light of the media glare makes it that much harder. Ditto with developing policy. If anything, perhaps what he should have done on policy development is exactly what David Cameron did when he became leader of the Conservatives back in 2005. Remember what he did?

Cameron set up six policy review groups to be chaired by one of the old titans of his party but managed by one of the up-and-coming politicians within the party at the time. He gave all of them a blank sheet of paper and effectively said “think the unthinkable” and see what you can come up with. Upon publication, we will thank you for the report, say it’s too early to state which policy recommendations will be adopted as party policy but will study it in detail over the coming months and years. In the meantime, he left it up to the reports’ authors to defend the policies concerned, knowing that any criticisms and limitations of said policies would not stick to the party because they had not been adopted, but would give enough scope for the party to improve and refine them over time before adopting them. With the likes of John Redwood, Michael Hestletine, Ken Clarke, Iain Duncan Smith and John Gummer all taking leads, all of them were big enough political names (all former cabinet ministers) to deal with any flak that came their way, while at the same time giving younger less experienced MPs and party workers experience of policy development. This is exactly what happened with the mixed reception that John Gummer & Zac Goldsmith had to face upon publication of their report. Goldsmith at the time was not a Tory MP, but was subsequently elected in the 2010 election after defeating Susan Kramer of the Lib Dems. Hence he came into the Commons with some experience of both making policy and having to publicly defend the policies that he had a role in formulating. It also got the media at least, talking about policies rather than personalities, spin and gaffes.

Should Labour have done the same? For example Estelle Morris and Stella Creasy on Education or Alistair Darling and Rachel Reeves on the economy. A process like this I think would have given the opportunity for the most talented of the new intake to get a feel for policy-making, allow the party to have that broader public conversation with its wider membership just as it did with the Conservatives, and allow the reports’ authors and those that worked on them to defend whatever ideas they came up with knowing that any shortcomings within their ideas would not necessarily tar the party as a whole given that the expectations had already been managed.

One of the ongoing jokes in Whitehall is that if the opposition party is too open with what its policies are, it runs the risk of the government of the day stealing them. This in itself speaks volumes about the lack of ‘choice’ across political parties – reducing politics to something of a technocratic exercise where politicians commission ‘independent reports’ by non-party-political figures before adopting all of the recommendations. Tuition fees is a classic case. By being more open about detailed policies (rather than soundbites such as an X-point plan for Y), Labour as it stands does run the risk of the Coalition nabbing some policies. But by not being more open, both party members and the wider public are left more at a loss at what the opposition stands for as well as who is providing that credible detailed alternative to the parties that are in government.


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