Oldham East and Uphill Struggle

Tomorrow morning, in front of Oldham’s Civic Hall, Labour leader Ed Milliband and his newest backbench MP Debbie Abrahams are holding their victory press conference in the open air surrounded by shipped-in supporters of all shapes, sizes and religions.

“A new dawn has broken, has it not?” asks the younger Milliband, holding onto Debbie’s wrist with his left hand. (Her left hand is flat and by her side, as focus groups find female candidates doing the thumbs-up “too Palin”. She is permitted two (max) little waves of the hand, like the fattest bridesmaid at the wedding reception.)

“This result is a sensation that rocks the heart of the ConDemNation!” barks little Ed, to the choreographed delight of the invited crowd. By the end of the evening, Oldham East (and Saddleworth, “like attaching Coronation Street to Last of the Summer Wine” as described by Michael White) would be thankful for never being asked to vote on anything, again, ever.

All being right and reasoned with the world, the good burghers of Oldham East and Saddleworth will put Labour back with a handsome-ish majority. LibDem Elwyn Watkins is a damn fine candidate, and I would prefer him winning after running Phil Woolas so close (one-hundred-and-three votes) in 2010. My smart money is on Abrahams; this is Labour’s to lose, not the Liberal Democrats to lose.

Doubtlessly, the combined forces of the on-line Labour keyboard Corps. will hed asplode at 11pm when the Returning Officer takes to the stage. It would certainly wobble the Coalition, just nothing like as hard as Labour think it will. This is more “finger poking a cheesecake” than “hammer against a balloon”.

Ed, for one, has yet to strike a name for himself. Though his stance has advanced from “opposition for the sake of it”, he appears to have given up reminding his Shadow Cabinet colleagues of his Conference plea to ‘grow up’ and ‘do Opposition differently’. Labour MPs appear confused, still, over the best way to deal with Coalition Britain; pointing out divisions between the two partners is counter-productive. Of course there’s going to be differences, that’s what “coalition” means. On the deficit reduction plan, Labour have yet to define exactly what they would do differently (if we sidestep the inevitable reminders of Liam Byrne’s “there’s no money left” note, there’s Alistair Darling’s “cuts worse than Thatcher” quote whilst still Chancellor to bring to mind….).

I’m not as rabid pro-Coalition/anti-Labour as some notable interweb commentators appear to be, clearly frothing at the mouth at every whisper of Westminster gossip about early elections, splits and divisions, as though ‘new politics’ means the same tedious parlour games that turned off voters years ago. Labour, it has to be said however, are not addressing the nation as a “Party prepared”. In the fast-forward news agenda world of today, the Opposition are expected to be primed for action; more mature and reasoned opposition would stop chasing the spotlight and dictaphones (and, indeed, some members of the Government could do well to stop acting like newspaper commentators, too….)

Labour must be careful what they wish for. Unsettling the Coalition, even pressing for an early election, would be a disaster. Ed’s profile is negligible. His position on the student protests was shaky, uneasy, and even now his reputation amongst the growing numbers of youthful protesters and anti-cuts groups seems weakened and wary. An early election would underline the under-cooked centre of his strategy, splitting his internal coalition – Brownites and Blairites at opposite ends of the Shadow Cabinet table ready to pounce.

Opinion polls are two a penny at the moment, bringing Labour some cheer with their constant and growing lead. Annoyingly for Ed, the polls show much less obvious support for not making so many cuts so quickly. His “squeezed middle” has yet to permeate beyond the hacks in the Lobby. They are also within the margin of error; and after the 2010 election you can forget ‘uniform swing’, it no longer exists.

A snap election would doubtlessly “do” for the LibDems…but for Labour? They’re constant House of Commons “bantz” as they ridicule the Coalition without putting up answers themselves could backfire. An electorate who accept the need to keep tight hold of their pursestrings don’t want to hear about spend, spend, spend. An outright Tory majority is statistically more likely than an outright Labour win. Coalition is currently putting the brakes on the worst Conservative excesses (see how angry the 1922 Committee is getting with their allegations of ‘tickling the LibDem tummy’). Coalition is working, and Labour know deep down how realistic an outright Conservative victory really is.

Playing the long-game annoys MPs, especially now, when the news agenda demands quick-smart reactions and fast-forward changes. It would be far better for Labour to play the slow game, make the subtle and considered moves of the poker player. Ed may win in Oldham tonight, but lose the long-term battle. That’s the gamble at the foot of the Pennines. Whatever happens, it only matters what moves Labour makes next…

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Fail on Sunday

Yesterday, the Labour leadership election was won by Ed Miliband. The analysis of how he won will go on for most of the weekend; statistically Labour members and MPs voted for his brother David; his push over the winning line came from mammoth Union support. Due to the electoral method used – where the three elements combine – his win will inevitably be questioned for its marginality. On everything from the bank bailout and 10p tax rate abolition to membership of the euro and Trident renewal, the responsibility of governance and opposition falls on Ed’s shoulders. He has a fixed-term parliament to shape and define Labour as effective and distinctive.

His policies and past records are legitimate points of debate, of course, nothing wrong here. What should not be questioned is Ed’s lifestyle. But guess where Ed has been criticised for his relationship with Justine Thornton? Where his very modern relationship is described on the day after his success with sly digs and arched eyebrows?

That’ll be the Mail on Sunday.

I’d much rather have ‘Red Ed’ digs than this sort of sniggering snobbish ‘commentary’. At least the articles on his political views are based on policy. The Mail has often been seen to ‘outdo’ itself; this idiotic article is one of its most offensive.

Brothers in arms

So, then, Ken Livingston beating Oona King. Does this point to the way in which Labour votes have gone for their Leadership election? If not an absolute repeat of the post-1979 reaction to an election defeat, 2010 appears to have all the characteristics of a party in opposition needing solace. When the Labour Party are shaken by events, they tend to shunt to the Left.

The debates leading to today’s announcement – confirming the victory of a Miliband from social democratic stock, one less so than the other – shaped the direction Labour will take along the path to the 2015 general election. Neither Miliband are as ideological as the pre-announcement media would paint, and regardless the secret of electoral success after Margaret Thatcher has been distancing of ideology from the voting public. John Major – the ‘solo coalitionist’ in Peter Hennessy’s detailed study of Prime Ministerial history – could not have won the 1992 election as a ‘typical’ Tory. In 1997, Tony Blair would stride through the jibes – “I’m Tory, Plan B”, “Tory Tony” – to secure a landslide victory as a Labour PM albeit not as a Labour man.

David Miliband is the Blairite Continuity Candidate, whose leadership skills have been brought into doubt following two scuffed opportunities to depose Gordon Brown. His leadership would not detach the Labour Party from its recent history or some of the policy decisions from the past which remain today. For every nod to progressive policy announcements – the LibDem favoured ”mansion tax” for example – Dave would happily subscribe to the spend now, pay back later mantra of both Blair and Brown. He has told plenty of leadership hustings that ‘state knows best’, his only nod to something vaguely socialist. Where the Coalition try to cut down the size, shape and cost of central Government, David would walk right back in and press ‘reverse’. ‘Nanny state’ philosophy, such as it is, would not disappear under the older Miliband. His campaign video starts with spiel of assured management speak which reeks of Blair’s televangelist style;

New Labour did fantastic things for the country, never let anyone take that away. But what counts is Next Labour. Listening, passionate, engaged, committed, thoughtful, radical, decisive: Labour. That’s what this election campaign is all about.

His younger brother, broadly speaking, is ‘of the left’, perhaps acknowledging that no Labour leader has been celebrated by its membership as being quite Left ‘enough’. He is the ‘change’ candidate, whose campaign video is 90 seconds of breathless undoing of the reputation of Labour’s time in office. Talk of creating ‘good jobs’, whatever they are, of reshaping foreign policy by ‘values’, seems disconcertingly vague. It’s worked, though, his echoing Gordon Brown tapping in to the concerns of a Labour membership tired of small ‘c’ values pervading economic and social arguments. Lord knows Ed needs someone else to write his script, if this from his campaign video is any guide;

I am the candidate most willing to turn the page in this Leadership election. I think that is an important voice and I am an important voice in that contest. I think where Labour politics needs to go, it needs to show people that we can create good jobs and good wages for people because we have too many people who are struggling and working harder and longer for less in this country….

Ickle Miliband got to the Living Wage pledge before his brother, has hinted with fellow left-leaning candidate Ed Balls that the 10p tax rate abolition was disastrous for the core Labour voter, and will doubtlessly continue to support the Coalition’s plan to increase income allowance to £10,000. His brother has given no similar assurances.

Both Milibands know the shadow of Labour’s time in office will be hard to shift. The gap between rich and poor was widened not narrowed. Child poverty was focused upon but not resolved at anything like the rate envisaged or necessary. State Knows Best target cultures turned police officers into admin staff chasing spreadsheets. “There’s no money left”, the parting shot from Liam Byrne, remains a sick punchline to their economic joke. David and Ed will both take their Party and potentially the country away from this reputation; Dave to the centre ground with continuing flavours of Blairite and by extension Thatcherite economic medicine: Ed with a Brownite, socialist flavour.

It was possible for Blair to win with Labour in 1997 by topping off the long reinvention process initiated by Neil Kinnock and John Smith. Now the Miliband brothers have a fixed-term parliament to undergo similar amount of renewal. The time for misunderstanding the Coalition is done, now the long walk back into power begins.

I agree with Diane

Labour’s leadership election has been – genuinely – fascinating. At a time when political philosophy and beliefs return as discussion points on the television news for the first time since ‘debate’ enraged over the extent of which Blair distrusted Brown, the Labour Party rage over who was more anti-Iraq than the others, who dislikes the Tories more. All the male contenders, one or two nuanced differences on public service reform aside, speak exactly the same; they are men who reached the highest level of public office possible under Blair/Brown and now talk with all the conviction of mid-level advertising executives at a lunchtime PowerPoint meetings.

I wish the male contenders could be taken seriously. Ed Balls is perhaps the worst of all, tripping up on Radio5Live yesterday with such gems as refusing to explain how he would grow the economy, (“I would grow the economy and make jobs”, he boasted, with a flourish of the Tommy Cooper ‘Just Like That!’). He waffled on about corporate hospitality at cricket grounds to the amusement of the audience, getting a knowing guffaw when he described his constituency of Morley and Outwood as “marginal”. It certainly wasn’t in the notional predictions, Ed, wonder why that was?

Andy “I’m not from London, you know” Burnham speaks with conviction, although his constant complaining about the New Labour way of doing things (he seems obsessed with talking about ‘dinner party ways of doing things’ like someone casually mentioning in their Facebook statuses how they don’t mind never being invited to friends’ events).

The two Millibands are perhaps the most emblematic of the defeated Labour regime. David looks and sounds and acts with Blairite ambition, even affecting the considered croak in the voice Blair used when saying one word while hastily calculating the next best word to use. David’s reputation has had, in once case literally, banana skin moments, the flawed genius unable to fulfil his promise at the right time, now he is struggling not to act like a “King uncrowned”.

Diane Abbott, helped to the shortlist by David Milliband, has been the candidate with the least to lose and the most to say. Sounding more genuinely Labour than any of her male opponents, on topics from privatising hospital cleaning contracts to renewing Trident, Diane is the sound of how the Labour Party used to be before, as she put it, the New Labour “marketing exercise” was introduced.

Blair’s reform of Labour was electorally successful, albeit at the expense of support from traditional Labour followers. The Party of 1997 was not that of 1979, and by following Thatcherite economic models and following George W Bush into the illegal invasion of Iraq, Blair did not break sweat in the aim of getting back those supporters. Labour now has an opportunity to set its course for the duration of this (fixed-term) Parliament; to continue as a centre-left “social democratic party”, or to return to its core values as a broadly left, socialist campaigning party. Diane will not win the leadership, she knows that, but her presence in the campaign highlights the state of Labour today – men of a certain age talking the same language, no difference dared spoken, no radical opinions dared suggested.

During the Liberal Democrat leadership campaign – I put Chris Huhne as my first preference over Nick Clegg, incidentally – what it meant to be liberal in the British political scene was debated right at the top of the contest. I am no closer understanding what it means to be a Labour supporter in 2010 having followed their leadership debates. David Milliband will win, there is no question, taking the Party back to Blairite positioning on welfare and NHS reform and Academy schools.

There could be another way, a genuine change from the Labour Party which alienated so many of its core supporters. To this end, I agree with Diane.