Labour leadership: what role will the SpAds play?

Special advisers should be part of the bridge between frontbenchers and the party membership.

The Labour leadership debates rumble on and now look likely to generate more light than heat. Despite the acres of coverage, one shadowy and influential group's views remain untested: the special advisers (SpAds), who tirelessly work to ensure their master's voice makes the 8.10 slot on the Today programme, among other things.

Caffeine-, alcohol- and nicotine-fuelled, sleep-deprived and harassed, they played a key part in New Labour's rise and fall. They live in the 24-hour news cycle, feeding off opinion polls and policy papers.

Some are working unpaid while they wait to find post-election jobs. The SpAds with funding are jockeying for position in the leadership race. Who wins has a personal financial imperative.

But few have paused for deep reflection on why the party lost, or what is the big idea that will bring voters back to the fold. This is critical, because they should be part of the bridge between frontbenchers and the party membership, rather than the gap.

There is a danger the party will end up with business as usual -- scoring points when it should place itself above and beyond the competition.

A group of former ministerial advisers pledged at a recent gathering that they would "hold the line" while the leadership campaign ran through and once the new leader was in place in the autumn they would, in the words of one aide, "recalibrate".

The dangerous strategy is: "Get new face in place and get the Tories out within 18 months."

Yet this acts as a potential straitjacket, restricting any move towards meaningful debate and change. Holding the line means that the key people involved in formulating and then "selling" the party's future are engaged in a junior-common-room debate.

Moving on

New Labour lost because it is out of touch with the day-to-day needs of Joe Public, despite its commitment to "continuous modernisation". People are fearful for their own, and their children's, future. They're time-poor and cash-poor. They certainly don't have the time, never mind the inclination, to read the policy documents SpAds obsess about.

Business as usual means a missed chance to really develop ideas like sustainability, which even business is now grasping.

And the still-palpable anger among party members over the Iraq war has yet to register. As one SpAd revealed: "We've moved on, the usual suspects haven't. Trying to give the cabinet a kicking over a closed issue is pointless."

What little is emerging as new policy also comes in for a drubbing from the insiders. David Miliband's call for greater inclusion of party members in policy decision-making through forums was treated with distain.

"Anyone suggesting that has never tried organising one," was one exasperated response. "You give the solution and track the reaction on the basis that you haven't got all day to hear about how you haven't asked the right question and haven't included all the interest groups."

So, what's missing? In short, the vision thing -- but one that everyday people can relate to -- that differentiates the party very clearly from the Conservatives.

But it has to be something that doesn't sound like tax and spend: zero-sum games to show who can tackle the deficit will not inspire. Since when did we all become accountants?

Two of the telling moments in the general election campaign were Gordon Brown's surprise to learn that the cleaners at HM Treasury earned less than a living wage and the party's condemnation of BA cabin crew for striking.

A new social contract

There has to be a better way to make people's lives more bearable. What is the contract a Labour government would offer the people it serves?

Modern public services are about things such as enabling older people to live in their homes for longer, or filling in benefits online rather than completing the same form ten times. It's not small government, but the small tedious stuff that government needs to do better. To escape the big versus small argument, tell us what good government looks like.

The workplace is still ruled by a Victorian factory day that starts at 9 and might end at 5.30 if you're lucky enough to be one of the few who don't have the longest working hours in Europe.

What is an affordable home, and how much would it cost? And how can you support a 25-year mortgage in a job market that is a free-for-all with zero security?

How do you create meaningful jobs? What will they be and where will they be?

How do you help those people who are struggling with crippling mortgages, university debt or chronically low wages save for a retirement with employers exiting pensions of any worth?

Whatever happened to family-friendly? The education system got money for schools and teachers' wages, but did testing really improve outcomes? After 14 years of government, where you are born -- and to whom -- still decides your future. How is that right?

Another special adviser advised me to ignore the debates and look at the Kremlinology.

"Diane Abbott's the pantomime dame and Andy Burnham keeps the social worker wing happy. It's about Balls versus Miliband," they said.

It misses the point. New Labour was about distancing itself from the days of Brezhnev. But distance is what the SpAds and other party thinkers need right now, along with a holiday.

Chris Smith is news editor for the MJ and a former lobby correspondent.

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What it’s like to fall victim to the Mail Online’s aggregation machine

I recently travelled to Iraq at my own expense to write a piece about war graves. Within five hours of the story's publication by the Times, huge chunks of it appeared on Mail Online – under someone else's byline.

I recently returned from a trip to Iraq, and wrote an article for the Times on the desecration of Commonwealth war cemeteries in the southern cities of Amara and Basra. It appeared in Monday’s paper, and began:

“‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the engraving reads, but the words ring hollow. The stone on which they appear lies shattered in a foreign field that should forever be England, but patently is anything but.”

By 6am, less than five hours after the Times put it online, a remarkably similar story had appeared on Mail Online, the world’s biggest and most successful English-language website with 200 million unique visitors a month.

It began: “Despite being etched with the immortal line: ‘Their name liveth for evermore’, the truth could not be further from the sentiment for the memorials in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Amara.”

The article ran under the byline of someone called Euan McLelland, who describes himself on his personal website as a “driven, proactive and reliable multi-media reporter”. Alas, he was not driven or proactive enough to visit Iraq himself. His story was lifted straight from mine – every fact, every quote, every observation, the only significant difference being the introduction of a few errors and some lyrical flights of fancy. McLelland’s journalistic research extended to discovering the name of a Victoria Cross winner buried in one of the cemeteries – then getting it wrong.

Within the trade, lifting quotes and other material without proper acknowledgement is called plagiarism. In the wider world it is called theft. As a freelance, I had financed my trip to Iraq (though I should eventually recoup my expenses of nearly £1,000). I had arranged a guide and transport. I had expended considerable time and energy on the travel and research, and had taken the risk of visiting a notoriously unstable country. Yet McLelland had seen fit not only to filch my work but put his name on it. In doing so, he also precluded the possibility of me selling the story to any other publication.

I’m being unfair, of course. McLelland is merely a lackey. His job is to repackage and regurgitate. He has no time to do what proper journalists do – investigate, find things out, speak to real people, check facts. As the astute media blog SubScribe pointed out, on the same day that he “exposed” the state of Iraq’s cemeteries McLelland also wrote stories about the junior doctors’ strike, British special forces fighting Isis in Iraq, a policeman’s killer enjoying supervised outings from prison, methods of teaching children to read, the development of odourless garlic, a book by Lee Rigby’s mother serialised in the rival Mirror, and Michael Gove’s warning of an immigration free-for-all if Britain brexits. That’s some workload.

Last year James King published a damning insider’s account of working at Mail Online for the website Gawker. “I saw basic journalism standards and ethics casually and routinely ignored. I saw other publications’ work lifted wholesale. I watched editors...publish information they knew to be inaccurate,” he wrote. “The Mail’s editorial model depends on little more than dishonesty, theft of copyrighted material, and sensationalism so absurd that it crosses into fabrication.”

Mail Online strenuously denied the charges, but there is plenty of evidence to support them. In 2014, for example, it was famously forced to apologise to George Clooney for publishing what the actor described as a bogus, baseless and “premeditated lie” about his future mother-in-law opposing his marriage to Amal Alamuddin.

That same year it had to pay a “sizeable amount” to a freelance journalist named Jonathan Krohn for stealing his exclusive account in the Sunday Telegraph of being besieged with the Yazidis on northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar by Islamic State fighters. It had to compensate another freelance, Ali Kefford, for ripping off her exclusive interview for the Mirror with Sarah West, the first female commander of a Navy warship.

Incensed by the theft of my own story, I emailed Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, attaching an invoice for several hundred pounds. I heard nothing, so emailed McLelland to ask if he intended to pay me for using my work. Again I heard nothing, so I posted both emails on Facebook and Twitter.

I was astonished by the support I received, especially from my fellow journalists, some of them household names, including several victims of Mail Online themselves. They clearly loathed the website and the way it tarnishes and debases their profession. “Keep pestering and shaming them till you get a response,” one urged me. Take legal action, others exhorted me. “Could a groundswell from working journalists develop into a concerted effort to stop the theft?” SubScribe asked hopefully.

Then, as pressure from social media grew, Mail Online capitulated. Scott Langham, its deputy managing editor, emailed to say it would pay my invoice – but “with no admission of liability”. He even asked if it could keep the offending article up online, only with my byline instead of McLelland’s. I declined that generous offer and demanded its removal.

When I announced my little victory on Facebook some journalistic colleagues expressed disappointment, not satisfaction. They had hoped this would be a test case, they said. They wanted Mail Online’s brand of “journalism” exposed for what it is. “I was spoiling for a long war of attrition,” one well-known television correspondent lamented. Instead, they complained, a website widely seen as the model for future online journalism had simply bought off yet another of its victims.