Is this the right time for Miliband to say "sack me or back me"?

Ed Miliband has turned the shadow cabinet elections into a pointless test of his leadership.

When most people start to think about what to pack for their summer holidays, politicians turn their thoughts to packing of a different nature for the conference season. Not shorts and T-shirt, mind, but how to pack the agenda with victories for the leadership, and sufficiently controversial debates for media interest.

Managing a good conference within a democratic party is always a tall order. Over-manage and the media whinge about being bored and start to fill the vacuum with grumblings about the leadership. Under-manage and every day can be a leadership defeat in glaring floodlit headlines.

In the Liberal Democrats there is a Federal Conference Committee, elected by conference delegates. They do well given the competing demands they face: the need for great debates and decisions on critical issues versus the biggest annual curtain raiser on the Party. When working as Director of Communications for the Liberal Democrats the Conference Committee meeting that set the agenda was one of my longest but most essential Saturdays of the year. The decisions they took could make us look relevant and cutting edge or a laughing stock. Also crucial are the decisions about which battles to have in the media. Internal ones often have a danger of looking like a naval gazing exercise.

Leading politicians in the Liberal Democrats can never take conference for granted and they know it. When a close vote is due, no-one in the media or the Party are able to accurately predict the outcome. There is normally a moment when someone speaks and you know the way conference is going to vote. That was certainly the case with the Health debate at the Spring Conference. When Shirley Williams spoke, you knew which way the vote was going.

There are the "darlings" of the conference, who can be highly persuasive. Over the years Simon Hughes has dominated that slot, though Tim Farron is the new kid on that block.

So a certain conference outcome, on health, on the economy, on post offices needs a healthy respect for the conference delegates, and a strong understanding of the party. And if you are going to lose a debate, at least go down believing in what you are doing.

Which is why I am amazed that Ed Miliband has put his head on the block regarding the ditching of shadow cabinet elections. Miliband is right on the issue, as Ben Brogan's blog says here. But pitching a battle on a largely internal managerial issue for his autumn conference is an extraordinary decision. This move - dribbled out yesterday evening in an attempt at an exclusive for the Guardian which didn't quite work - looks to have all the charactieristics of a leadership defeat - and over what? Not a fundamental change in ownership by the state, but the way an internal election works.

It is hard to see how this can be anything other than a test moment for Ed Miliband's leadership. But surely if he was going to take on his party and ask them to back him or sack him, wouldn't this have been the moment to have an answer on the structural deficit and Labour's answer on the economy? Given that even those members and MPs who supported Ed Miliband are having second thoughts, is this the right moment to say "sack me or back me" over a party matter?

As we prepare for our conference season, it strikes me that Ed Miliband's packing leaves a lot to be desired. If I were him this year, I would have a decent test of leadership about fundamental party policies that affect people. But in the absence of that battle and in the words of the Godfather, I would "leave the gun and take the cannolis".

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage