This article is from the March issue of Total Politics
“A war of attrition.”
That’s how Ed Miliband summed up Labour’s current position at a recent Parliamentary Labour Party meeting.
“The hard yards of opposition” is another favourite phrase from the Labour leader.
Ed has stressed that Labour’s battle back to government is “a marathon, not a sprint,” but some believe he’s out of breath already.
Labour came out three points ahead of the Conservatives when a recent ComRes poll for Independent on Sunday/Sunday Mirror asked how people would vote if David Miliband was party leader. Brother Ed only managed level pegging with the Tories.
Yet separate figures from the same survey – analysing the percentage of 2010 Labour voters who would still vote for the party under different leaders – saw Ed top the poll with 82 per cent, compared to David on 67 per cent. Ed Balls was third (55 per cent), Tony Blair next (53 per cent), then Alistair Darling (47 per cent). Just 38 per cent of 2010 Labour voters would vote for the party under Yvette Cooper.
The last few weeks have seen headlines about the Balls/Cooper household launching a leadership bid with Italian food, and David Miliband throwing verbal missiles at his brother via a wordy rebuttal to Roy Hattersley. If these ‘power-plays’ are meant to nudge Labour towards some kind of internal war, pretty unusual tactics are being employed.
And yet the whispers continue. So what is the current dynamic within the Labour Party? Are there manoeuvres? Or should we leave the opposition to eat lasagne in peace?
“Most of the grumbles are coming from David Miliband supporters,” says one Labour representative. “Until they’re [from] Balls or Ed Miliband supporters, the Labour leader is safe.”
Gloria De Piero sits in a Portcullis House office, smoking an electronic cigarette. “Sadly, we lost power,” she says, “but we haven’t done what political parties normally do when kicked out of office, which is to row with each other and forget about the public.” The plastic stick between her fingers flashes blue as she takes a drag. “I honestly don’t recognise these factions. If they’re happening, then I’m not getting invited to the meetings.”
Ed Miliband has sought to overcome the associations of the Brown/Blair divide by focusing on his “next generation”. Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett is all for it. “We cannot go back to factional or personality conflicts,” he says. “Ed’s got some new faces in. Some people who were only elected last year are already in the shadow cabinet. So yeah, he’s building a team – establishing our new identity.”
Michael Dugher, Ed Miliband’s former PPS, agrees. “Ed was quick to promote a whole bunch of the new MPs. He wanted to make that generational shift.”
But this hasn’t pleased everyone. One experienced Labour representative admits: “Now’s not the time to climb the greasy pole. It’s probably going to be eight years before we’re back in power. We’re not hungry enough for it yet.”
Another MP, with a wry laugh, adds simply: “We don’t have enough power to have power bases.”
That may be the case, but an examination of the current party dynamic is important. Without further ado, let’s shed some light on the “hard yards of opposition”.
A couple of weeks ago, Sky News interviewed Lord Mandelson. “Sixty-eight per cent of the public can’t see Ed Miliband as prime minister,” said the interviewer. “It’s a good thing that the general election isn’t taking place tomorrow, then,” replied the former business secretary. This sums up the task facing the current Labour leader: convincing everyone that he can win if they agree to play his long game.
“I’m as disappointed as anyone that we’re not doing better in the polls,” admits Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, “but the only poll that matters is the next election. No leader can be expected to cut through and make a lasting impression on people in their first year. People used to write Blair off as Bambi… It’s not that people think Ed’s useless, it’s that they feel they don’t know him well enough. His main challenge is to cut through… This will be a crunch year for Ed.”
Jon Trickett counts Ed Miliband as a personal friend. “Ed has an enormous intellectual capacity, which is rare. He seems to be able to absorb and understand information almost immediately, intuitively. Leaders aren’t born. You become a leader in office. It doesn’t happen on day one.”
And there have been bumpy moments so far. While Miliband was talking about his “strong inner belief” on the Today programme, colleagues report that he was “very down” and “doubting himself”. He was also audibly heckled by normally sympathetic left-wing press at a press conference, after Rachel Reeves praised his “steely determination”.
Then came Stephen Hester’s bonus, and a ‘win’ for the Labour leader. Peter Hain, who is in charge of Ed’s Refounding Labour project, says this was the latest triumph for his leadership – after News International, the riots and responsible capitalism. “But it’s the toughest job in the world… I backed Ed, not because I wanted some leftist lurch, but because he could re-establish the integrity of the Labour Party, founded on our values of social justice, equal opportunities and human rights.”
But there are still doubts. One MP points out that Miliband and Balls used to work in the same office before 1994 – “a bit like Tony and Gordon” – and fears that the same pattern could play out again at the top of the party. Balls is “building a Brownite power base around Ed [Miliband]”, they say. A shadow cabinet MP reports that Miliband gives them a pretty free reign over their policy area, “but it’s Balls who says no to things”.
Another MP points to one of the first shadow Treasury meetings after the election. Supposedly, it lasted for a couple of hours, after which Ed Miliband simply thanked everyone for coming. “Blair wouldn’t have left a meeting without something decided,” they say, “and Brown would have delivered a three-hour lecture on the finer details of why his economic policy was right.”
But Ed is working on his messaging. Those close to him say that the economy will dominate his opposition in 2012. Dugher, the shadow minister without portfolio, agrees: “The big battle is going to be over the economy. We have to demonstrate that we have an alternative, that we’d be doing things very differently. The economy is front and centre, and will be for every single day for the whole of this year.”
The ‘moral capitalism’ argument was mainly worked up by Ed Miliband, Chuka Umunna and John Denham, while executive pay is Umunna and Miliband’s work. By comparison, Balls is doing the short-term, rapid-response work on the economy, acting as a good ‘face-off’ to the politics of George Osborne.
“I sense a frustration with the workings of the shadow cabinet that’s unique to the current regime,” says one MP, “but the thing that’s definably Ed M is responsible capitalism – and, I guess, people who were once soft left, have found an intellectual coherence under this.” But Tessa Jowell, not someone you would necessarily classify as ‘soft left’ is also upbeat. “He’s onto something,” she says. “He’s led the argument, not followed it.”
Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper
If there are manoeuvres to watch out for, the Balls/Cooper dynamic is the bookies’ favourite. Stories have leaked in recent weeks about the couple’s hosting skills. A recent meal of lasagne and salad was served for their shadow cabinet teams. Other menu options at the Balls/Cooper dinner table can include chilli con carne, a good “stiff sponge” or, if you’re really lucky, Balls’s famous 14-hour South Carolina pulled pork barbecue.
Sources close to the shadow chancellor deny that they’re “dinner party people – unlike some colleagues – mostly because they’re not in London a lot. It’s just that Ed [Balls] likes to cook for people.”
And most agree that the meals are not tactical moves to undermine Miliband. Dugher notes: “You’ll get mischief in the papers, because Balls knocks up another lasagne… I’ve eaten a lot of meals with him. He does a legendary event in the constituency – a great big barbeque thing… and brilliant cakes. But this is just mischief.”
Trickett’s three neighbouring constituencies are represented by Ed Miliband, Cooper and Balls. “Yvette I’ve known since 1996,” he says, “and I met Ed Balls at the same time. I’ve known Ed Miliband since he was young. My professor at university was his father, Ralph… Yvette’s completely focused on policing nationally and representing her constituency. Ed Balls has a national role. If you look at Ed and Yvette’s teams, they’re quite a disparate group of people – they don’t have a particular political tendency within the Labour Party.”
Tricketts adds: “As far as I can see, everyone’s pre-occupied with getting us into a fighting force, ready to take the election whenever it comes. If anybody is tempted by the leadership of the Labour Party, they would never be forgiven.”
One special adviser is adamant that they are building support though. “There’s no other power base. It’s depressing,” they say. Another adviser to a traditionally New Labour MP admits to being “surprised” by how many people are not adverse to a Cooper/Balls leadership, even those from a New Labour background. “They aren’t as horrified by the idea as some might expect… They [Cooper/Balls] are operators.”
De Piero, who attended a Balls/Cooper lunch in her capacity as a shadow Home Office minister, recounts the experience: “There were loads of people there from both teams. I chatted to Yvette about Borgen. I chatted to Ed about whether I could help chop some cherry tomatoes. I texted both of them the next day. ‘Thank you for doing that. It was a really nice evening’.
“I had the lasagne.” She laughs.
Talking of Borgen, there is another reason why Cooper, in particular, generates such interest. There’s a desire within a certain section of the party to see a woman become the next Labour leader. And the popular Danish TV series, where Birgitte Nyborg becomes the first Danish woman prime minister, has not gone unnoticed. Indeed, this group has been jokingly nicknamed the “Borgen women” by one wise-cracking northern Labour MP.
And it seems that Hazel Blears is among the Nyborg fans: “I think it’s long overdue in Labour Party history,” she says. “I’d have liked to see Barbara Castle as Labour leader… Bring it on.”
David Miliband was spotted recently posing with a small baby in Portcullis House, while women around him cooed. Instantly, Twitter decided it was a leadership bid. Tongue-in-cheek? Yes. But there’s still a belief that the slicker-haired brother could return.
Blears is realistic about David’s impact on the party: “If you’ve been the foreign secretary, you’re always going to be a big figure, a big player,” she says. “It’s quite difficult to compete with that unless you’ve been the prime minister.” One person close to David Miliband is adamant that “there will not be a second fratricide”, but others point out that David could take the top spot if his brother stood down of his own accord, and a consensual Miliband swap was agreeable among Labour colleagues. “It’s not something he would initiate,” sources say.
One pal of the elder Miliband says: “Friends ring him up, asking him whether he’ll stand. It’s not true that he rings up friends, asking them if he should stand again.” Another person close to David adds: “When you see him now, he is either coming back from abroad or discussing his youth unemployment commission. These manoeuvring claims are laughable – he’s above that now.”
Separately, there’s concern among some on the party right about a lack of replacement for David, who only intermittently chooses to speak up on carefully-selected topics. “The symbolism of Progress [the New Labour pressure group] is really important in this,” says one Labour MP, “because people you could caricature as ‘Labour old right’ hate it, and go out of their way to slag it off in public. That’s fundamentally unwise.” Another Labour MP involved in Progress points out: “There is no one on the right to replace [David]. Chuka’s too inexperienced. Rachel Reeves is too young… Stephen Twigg, Tessa Jowell and others have had their time. There’s no obvious candidate to pass the New Labour torch on to.”
Former cabinet minister Ben Bradshaw cautiously admits that the party should turn more often to its more experienced hands. “I don’t want this to sound about me, but I don’t think we make enough of our experienced people, like Alistair Darling, who have huge respect, a higher profile, and are effective on the economy. Their knowledge could add something to our current standing.”
Does Bradshaw believe that the New Labour ideology needs a successor? “I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a Labour students’ disco at party conference? Whose name do they still chant? ‘Tony’.”
Alistair Darling, Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander
With the debate about independence raging, Scottish MPs in Westminster are warming up for a fight. Although Johann Lamont will lead any anti-independence campaign north of the border, a mouthpiece is needed in Westminster. Sources close to Ed Miliband say former chancellor Alistair Darling will take that lead, supported by other Scottish MPs, including shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy and shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander.
There have even been mutterings about Gordon Brown returning. His poll ratings in Scotland are still positive, especially on the economy. Dugher, Brown’s former spokesman, won’t be drawn on his role in the Scottish referendum. “You’d have to ask Gordon about that… I used to speak for him, but not anymore,” he says.
De Piero has become a particular fan of Darling’s: “Alistair has been the biggest revelation to me. I used to watch him on telly, or maybe interview him. He’s warm and funny.”
It seems, though, that Murphy and Alexander will be reluctant to take on too much of the frontline Scottish campaign. “They both still have ambitions in the shadow cabinet,” says one Labour adviser. But they would never be able to take a lead on public service reform, like the NHS or education, as these services are operated under different criteria in Scotland. “Brown ruined that for them,” adds the adviser.
Tech-savvy Tom Watson is a powerful force in Victoria Street. The Labour MP has transformed himself, from being caught in a tangle of headlines involving Derek Draper and Damian McBride to being Labour’s unlikely poster-boy.
One senior adviser notes: “At conference last year, he appeared in a video alongside a load of celebrities…” The same adviser suggests: “He’s basically running the Labour Party. He spends a lot of time over in Victoria Street.”
Others are less excitable about Watson’s dominance. Another Labour HQ staffer qualifies: “He’s in Victoria Street for most of Monday morning for meetings and then again on Friday. That’s not exactly ‘running the Labour Party’.”
Dugher counts Watson as “a very old friend”. “We have a bit of fun… Curry and karaoke.” he says. Watson’s karaoke sessions are not to be missed apparently.
Perhaps the next Granita will take place at Lucky Voice after Ed Balls finishes his rendition of Elvis’s American Trilogy? It’s about as likely as a chilli con carne coup round at the Balls-Cooper residence.
But unlike Tony and Gordon’s meal-deal, forces are at work to ensure the next Labour takeover will not leave the party with an upset stomach for quite so long.