Unions: “Stop David, not Get Ed”

Despite gleeful howls from the right-wing press, it seems that the unions were more interested in st

The debate about the extent to which Ed Miliband owes his election victory to the unions is going to rumble on and on. Already, it's the most prominent detail of his election: for instance, the Telegraph's front-page story today ("New Labour is dead") features the phrase "Mr Miliband insisted he was his 'own man' and not in thrall to the unions, whose support gave him victory."

This morning, Alistair Darling was on the Today programme to talk about Labour's future economic policy, but instead found himself tackled by Sarah Montague on Ed Miliband's likely economic direction, given the manner of his election. Even Patrick Wintour's detailed and excellent analysis of the voting breakdown in today's Guardian concedes in its headline that "the unions had the last word".

The right-wing press is clearly going to enjoy attempting to undermine Ed Miliband as he attempts to take the Labour Party forward with references to his "thrall" to union barons and his lack of a democratic mandate. There can be no doubt that the numbers appear to stack up behind this argument: Ed received first preferences from just 72 of the 635 constituency parties, but dominated union members, with 47,439 first preferences compared to his brother's 21,778. Union turnout overall was low -- just 9 per cent of those eligible voted -- but it seems that those who did turn out did so overwhelmingly for the younger Miliband.

The relationship between Labour and the unions must and should be subject to close scrutiny. But, before anyone writes Ed off as a union stooge, Kevin Maguire, in his Mirror column today, teases out a vital point: the unions didn't so much elect Ed Miliband as not elect David Miliband. Or, as Maguire put it, they "whirred into action to Stop David not Get Ed".

Nigel Morris in today's Independent makes a similar point, even quoting a union official saying: "We stopped David -- that's the main thing." According to another of Morris's union sources, they viewed their tactics as "levelling the playing field" for the other candidates in the face of David's superior resources.

And here we run up against yet another ramification of the Miliband brothers' family relationship -- in another contest, perhaps the way for Ed Miliband to distance himself from his apparent popularity with the unions would have been to emphasise that he had merely benefited from his rival's inability to appear "in touch" with the working class as represented by union members.

But although Ed has shown himself to be ruthless, he has also proved himself the kind of politician who will not kick a fellow candidate when he's down. That the candidate in question happens to be his elder brother would thus seem to rule this course of action out for him.

The problem now facing Ed Miliband is clear: if he takes union funding to replenish his party's empty coffers, making various concessions on his approach to cutting the deficit in return, the party will be financially ready to campaign much sooner. But, as the reactions from the right-wing press have already demonstrated, the taint of union involvement, especially when it comes to economic policy, hands crucial ammunition to the Conservatives at a time when Labour desperately needs to be on the offensive.

As delighted as Ed will be to have woken up leader of the Labour Party this morning, I can't help but think he will already be regretting, in private, how he got there.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit