Does Ed Miliband practise what he preaches?

The Labour leader is struggling to throw off the perception that he is a Westminster insider.

How seriously does Ed Miliband take grassroots politics? A leaked email from a longstanding member of his own constituency raises questions about the Labour leader's commitment to the people he serves in Doncaster, echoing new concerns from senior figures in his parliamentary team.

The email, sent from the member to a Labour blogger, says:

I must comment and state that Ed Miliband on the public stage is not the Ed Miliband that is seen in and around the community of Doncaster . . . From knowledge, local knowledge (and) experience Ed should practise what he preaches in his local community when he decides to appear. He is not very popular at this time amongst supporters and Labour party members in Doncaster.

The leak comes as the newly appointed shadow minister for the cabinet office, Jon Trickett, told me that shadow ministers -- including himself -- were in danger of becoming "out of touch" as they moved up the party hierarchy. In one of his first interviews since taking up his position, Trickett raises concerns that the problem is widespread:

[Leading politicians] can be preoccupied with strategic decisions about the ends of the universe. These decisions might well affect the lives of millions, but it remains essential to connect with people by having lots of personal contact with local communities.

From my own experience, I know that it is very easy to become remote. I like to pretend to myself that I still live most of my time in Yorkshire but it can be a form of self deceit when in fact you spend a large part of the week in London.

Everyone knows that a party leader is busy. But comments like these will sting Miliband who has repeatedly called for the rejuvenation of the party beyond Westminster, as evidenced by the recent Refounding Labour consultation.

The Labour leader has also been keen to present himself as someone who will take on elites and "vested interests", but has been struggling to throw off the public's perception of him as a Westminster insider.

It also comes just days after the newly appointed shadow education minister Stephen Twigg made a spontaneous U-turn and embraced the controversial free schools policy which -- as Mark Ferguson on LabourList pointed out -- seemed to undermine new commitments to democraticise the party and give more say to the grassroots.

The Doncaster constituent -- who has just left the leader's constituency with the recent boundary changes -- asked not to be named because it might damage their party career. The constituent was keen to stress that they could not speak for all members, but that there was an "arrogance and complacency" among Miliband's constituency staff and described Refounding Labour as a "farce":

There is little space for intellectual debate at local level unless of course you reside in London. Mr Miliband cannot be serious in moving Labour forward in attempting to create a better society by choosing a reinvigorated shadow cabinet that have no understanding or appeal to those that they represent....This is contrary to his speech. This is contrary to the Refounding Labour debate.

The perception that Ed Milband needs to do more in his own back yard was echoed by a senior member of the parliamentary Labour party, who said the leader needed to "do a lot more" in the area. The fact that Doncaster has also elected an English Democrat mayor is still seen as a sign of discontent with Labour in the region. Yes Miliband has other important issues to deal with, but if you can't connect with your own constituency, how can you connect with the rest of the country?

But Mary Wimbury, one of Miliband's organisers in the run up to the general election, said that the leader had been devoted to the constituency, and that it was "difficult to drag him away" from talking to voters on the doorstep. She added that members understood that as leader, he had a commitment to communities around the country as well as those in Doncaster.

What about Miliband's fellow cabinet members? Many do have a good reputation for constituency work -- Tessa Jowell, Harriet Harman and Chuka Umunna to name a few popular examples -- but they tend to be based in London. Clearly it's easier for MPs who are based in the capital to combine their constituency duties with the Westminster grind. The leader would do well to consider how to support and encourage others to do the same.

Apart from Ed Balls, Liam Byrne is one of the few shadow cabinet members serving outside of London who is still held in high regard in his constituency. When confronted with concerns that other cabinet members might be devote insufficient time to the people who voted for them, Byrne paused before adding diplomatically, "everyone has got different constituencies".

Of course this problem applies to the Tories too, but it's particularly bad for Labour because the party was supposed to offer something better. Ed Miliband might be busy, but you can't talk about rejuvenating movement politics without practicing it. Shadow cabinet members can't encourage members to get involved and participate unless they lead by example. If you want a job in abstract policy, join a think tank.

An MP's first commitment should be serving the people who put them there.

 

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.