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

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.