The Tories hope (and Labour fears) that the political weather is changing

The media are sounding bored with the story of everything going Labour's way.

There is a lot of political meteorology going on in Westminster at the moment. MPs are acutely sensitive to what they see as seasonal changes in the way they are portrayed by the media. They aren’t wrong to detect that press coverage tends to shift in weather patterns, with a prevailing wind blowing at the backs of some candidates and hard in the faces of others.

Mostly, those trends track opinion polls and perceptions of one party leader’s performance. But they can also become self-sustaining – feedback loops of positive or negative coverage. Besides, journalists hunt in packs. Once a pattern for coverage is established it can fix a distorting lens on the news agenda, through which every detail is filtered. Thus, for example, when Gordon Brown was enjoying his short honeymoon as Prime Minister – respected for seriousness of purpose and an earnest demeanour – David Cameron was going through one of those periods where a lack of policy heft was drawing criticism.

It was summer and images of the Conservative leader in shorts on the beach seemed to suggest a boyish unreadiness for office, as compared to Brown’s besuited seriousness. Fast forward a year. Brown’s leadership was in crisis and Cameron was looking more like the next Prime Minister. Suddenly the same holiday snaps made the Tory leader look like an ordinary guy, at ease with himself and the country; his Labour counterpart was robotic and aloof. The people had not changed but in journalistic terms, the story was different.

At the start of this year, Ed Miliband looked weak. David Cameron was enjoying a poll bounce after his (non) veto of a European treaty. Labour MPs were anxious and chattering nervously about the inadequacy of their leadership. The whole opposition project looked shaky and everything Miliband did seemed to feed into that narrative. A misspelled tweet referring to an 80s quiz programme as “blackbusters” instead of “blockbusters” was treated as an enormous gaffe, practically rocking the foundations of the Labour party.

Then came a Labour spring. George Osborne’s budget failed. It got tangled up in a whole bunch of bungled policy presentations and botched media performances now known collectively as the “omnishambles”. Suddenly, Miliband was to be taken seriously as a potential Prime Minister. Divisions in the coalition were all potentially fatal; the Tory leadership was in question. Everything Cameron did has subsequently been shone through the new jaundiced lens. Take, for example, reports that the Prime Minister sipped wine while administering his recent reshuffle – a fairly unremarkable detail in most respects. Except it was treated as proof that Cameron is heartless and arrogant. He quaffed claret and failed to offer a glass to his brutally despatched underlings, like a drunken lord dismissing his downtrodden staff.  Two years ago it would have been evidence of what a supremely confident and relaxed man he is, effortlessly carrying out the duties of high office when his predecessor was surly and uptight. Cameron the natural.

Obviously these changes in presentation are informed by choices the politicians themselves make. Mistakes and successes are amplified; confidence breeds good coverage, insecurity invites a kicking. The budget provoked bad headlines because it was not, by most standards, a good budget. Miliband got a fairer hearing because he held his nerve, made some judgement calls and said things that forced his party and the media to pay closer attention.

Nonetheless, the press pack gets bored with any particular story and impatient for a new one. Many Westminster fingers are currently being held aloft, sensing the wind changing. So Miliband could be Prime Minister? Really? So what’s he really on about? And what’s all this about friction with Ed Balls? That’s the story, surely. And wait a minute! Could those be green shoots of economic recovery just visible puncturing the arid soil? A bit of growth and surely the Tories can start closing the gap in the polls. Of course they’d be behind mid-term when forced to take unpopular decisions, but compare the personal ratings of Miliband and Cameron. When it comes down to it, the nation has a clear favourite to be Prime Minister – this could be the colour of political coverage for the new season.

Everything depends, of course, on whether the leaders and their parties can get through party conferences without any mishaps. I wouldn’t want to suggest that the whole direction of politics is dictated by mood swings of editors, reporters and commentators with short attention spans. But I detect from Labour and Tories alike (in the form of anxiety on the former side; hope on the latter) that a different weather system is drifting in.

On the Conservative side, much depends on whether or not a huge Boris Johnson-shaped cloud rains on Cameron’s conference parade. There is clearly concern in Downing Street about the PM being upstaged.

For Labour, concern is centred on the leader’s speech. Last year’s intervention from the podium got mixed reviews to say the least. Only later, when the weather had changed, did it become conventional wisdom to see Miliband’s disquisition on predatory and productive modes of capitalism as a perceptive, agenda-setting insight. Now there is pressure on the leader to advance his position with a more concrete – and more pithily phrased offer; something that starts to sketch the outlines of a winnable campaign. The advice from one senior Labour figure close to Miliband, not terribly helpful but certainly true and applicable to Cameron too, and Nick Clegg for that matter: “Just don’t screw it up.”

The pre-conference advice from one senior Labour figure close to Miliband: "Just don’t screw it up." Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.