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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.