Ed Miliband and the paradox of party reform

In order to open up their parties, leaders end up on relying on centralising devices.

Ed Miliband's proposal to scrap elections to the shadow cabinet raises some interesting questions about the challenges of opposition and political reform in general - interesting, that is, to people who are interested in that sort if thing. (Civilians with better things to think about on a sunny Friday in June, look away now.)

It is surely the right thing to do. Miliband needs to assert authority, not least because of the inelegant shape of his own electoral mandate. He wasn't the first choice of a majority of Labour MPs or the members, but he is the leader as legitimately installed under the party's (arcane) process. He doesn't need a rolling load of ballots that are irrelevant to non-Labour voters, distract MPs and generate chatter about competing mandates. Hence resistance also to the idea of a directly elected party chair. He is the boss; he should appoint his team.

One of many debilitating features of the Blair-Brown feud and then the abortive coups once Brown was in power was the decline in respect for the office of party leader; old-fashioned discipline. Ed needs to get that back.

Of course, curbing internal democracy never looks great. It is particularly hazardous for Miliband if it starts to feed into a sense of obsessive top-down management. That has dangerous resonance when he needs to rebut a "son of Brown" notion doing the rounds. (The charge being that, like his predecessor, the new leader is too cautious, too focused on tactical positioning and wedded to the techniques of command-and-control.)

It is also worth remembering that the current shadow cabinet mostly came into Labour politics as Neil Kinnock was fighting a battle to make the party electable, which meant very heavy-handed purges from the centre. I don't for a moment think the situation is equivalent, but I do suspect - and shadow cabinet members have told me - that the scars of that era have left the Labour high command wary of devolving too much power to the party periphery.

But there lies a paradox of opposition. The leader has to demonstrate that he is changing the party, which requires signalling openness to new ideas and willingness to promote fresh faces. But inertia is always a powerful force, so the leader must often impose change from the centre. David Cameron struggled with this problem. He recognised the importance of changing the party's image through candidate selection, but his clumsy attempts to impose an "A-List" backfired. Local associations rebelled and the plan had to be watered down. Instead of proving Tory modernity, the A-List approach revealed how resistant the party was to change. Miliband will also have to impose his will on candidate selection - all leaders do - but he'll be reluctant to start a round of local squabbles about golden boys and girls "parachuting" in.

There is trouble brewing on this front. Miliband is attracted to the idea of opening up party structures to draw in involvement from community activists who might be sympathetic to Labour but are not die-hard members. The ultimate goal should be to make the local Labour party a place that people turn to if they have concerns about local issues and want to engage in ground-level politics; not a place that where only very angry people go to rant about the Gaza blockade (I caricature crudely, sorry).

The problem is that any attempt to change the profile of local Labour parties and candidate selection in particular quickly turns into a conversation about building a new membership base, which is - in Labour terms - the age-old aspiration of those who would like to dilute the influence of theunions.

It is a fight worth having. A Labour MP who knows Ed Miliband's thinking on these matters put it to me well the other day when he said: "In opposition, what you do with the party becomes a proxy for what you would do with the public realm." In other words, since you don't have the power to change the country, prove that you mean business by changing the party. And there's no doubt it needs changing - otherwise it wouldn't have been evicted from office.

I suspect that if Cameron had gone about things differently and successfully reformed local Conservative Associations, he would be in a much stronger position now. He should have turned them into vigorous agents of social action - embassies for his "Big Society" instead of places where you have to swear an oath of loathing for the European Union before crossing the threshold. As things stand, Cameron is still caught between the competing needs to placate his right wing and prove to the country that the Tories are a moderate, socially conscientious party. His modernisation project stalled in the centre.

No doubt Miliband has studied that example carefully. At least, I hope he has.

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

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.