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.