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".

HEINZ BAUMANN/GALLERY STOCK
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad