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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.