The battle for control of Labour's election machine

As big a question for Ed Miliband as the matter of who delivers Labour’s economic message is the question of who will run the party’s general election campaign.

The Labour Party is undoubtedly more united now than it has been for at least a generation. That is setting the bar fairly low, since its more recent session in government was characterised by a bitter feud between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor and their respective entourages. And Labour’s last stint in opposition only ended once vicious, factional warfare had been quelled.

Veterans declare that the Blair-Brown civil strife was not a patch on the civil wars of the Eighties and that any current tensions around the shadow cabinet are but a dim echo or mild aftershock from the TB/GB era.

That doesn’t stop the media feeling around for cracks to prise open, nor does it stop mischief makers inside and outside the party drawing attention to any fissures that might appear in the otherwise uniform veneer of message discipline. A rich but irregular supply of Kremlinological data is furnished by David Miliband’s periodic interventions.

Whenever the brother who might have been leader says anything in the House of Commons there is a flurry of speculation about his return to the front line of Labour politics. Most of it is unwelcome in the former foreign secretary's office. What he most wants is to be able contribute without it reviving pop-psychoanalytical chatter about his relationship with his brother and without the media gleefully readying itself for a re-enactment of old Blair-Brown-style strife.

Except the only way to get beyond that kind of chatter is for David’s participation to become a normal, regular part of the official Labour offer to the public. It is a good old-fashioned Catch 22: he can’t join the front line because of the psychodrama, and he can’t get out of the psychodrama without rejoining the front line.

The latest round of speculation began with a peculiar piece in the Times (£) on Monday, suggesting that anonymous senior Labour people want David back and are urging him to decide one way or another. The newspaper gave the story deliberate momentum with a leader, echoing that line.

There has been another spike in chatter levels following David’s speech in Tuesday’s welfare debate. The Guardian’s Nick Watt has blogged an arcane hermeneutic reading of the speech to explain what, in the Westminster imagination, David was really trying to say. In an interview in the Mirror yesterday, Ed was asked about his brother and replies that they are now friends. He was also asked to confirm that Ed Balls will hold the shadow treasury brief until the election and declined to do so. Thus the speculative story is embellished and sustained.

The obvious reason Ed Miliband might want his brother back on the front line is to act as a counter-weight to Balls, the shadow cabinet’s most heavyweight figure and the man many in the parliamentary party believe is putting voters off listening to Labour’s economic message.

There was a rash of anti-Balls briefing towards the end of last summer. That came to a stop at Labour’s annual conference, where the shadow chancellor went out of his way to sound collegiate and loyal to the leader’s official line. Both Eds know any hint of a serious rift between them would quickly swallow both of their ambitions. (As I wrote here.) Their relationship is sustained by residual esprit de corps as veterans of Gordon Brown’s entourage and, more substantially, by the old Cold War doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.

That doesn’t stop other Labour people agitating for a change of personnel. To some extent, those MPs and scarred Blairite veterans who were toasting David as a king-over-the-water in the early years of Ed’s leadership, when it all looked a bit shaky, have simply amended their toast to shadow-chancellor-over-the-water.

There isn’t any evidence that Ed Miliband plans to satisfy that appetite. At the same time, he cannot ignore the possibility that Balls – indelibly associated in many minds with Gordon Brown’s legacy – is a drag on Labour’s poll rating and an obstacle to the leader’s aspiration to represent renewal and definitive break from the past. Balls, meanwhile, has let it be known that he would rather retire from the front line altogether than take a more junior shadow cabinet role. Miliband hardly wants to contemplate what potential devilry could busy the hands of Balls if they fell idle on the back benches.

The discussion of whether Miliband should hang on to Balls usually focuses on the economic debate. On the one hand, the shadow chancellor’s prediction of a double-dip recession was vindicated; on the other hand, the voters don’t seem to care. But maybe, with a triple dip, they will ... but what if growth returns? And so on and so on, round and round the argument goes. But there is another factor in play.

Balls has historically commanded the loyalty of powerful players within the Labour Party. He has, by reputation, been assiduous in building a discreet internal power base: a party-within-the-party. As is often the case in politics, this apparatus has acquired mythic proportions in excess of its actual clout.

A lot of day-to-day rebuttal and attack politics on the Labour side is in the hands of Tom Watson, the party’s official campaign coordinator, and his deputy Michael Dugher. They are often presumed to be Balls acolytes, a loyalty legacy from the old Brownite clan. The capacity to call on an internal patronage network within the party has traditionally been seen as one of the shadow chancellor’s great advantages - and something that ultimately makes him indispensible to Miliband.

As one party adviser puts it: “Ed Miliband didn’t have a machine when he became leader and he needed one.” Balls’s machine might not have been the most sophisticated, high-tech Nimbus 2000 of 21st Century political combat. It was nonetheless famously effective.

But the Balls-Watson relationship, I’m told, has soured very dramatically since the shadow chancellor started writing for and courting support from the Sun and the Sun on Sunday, newspapers controlled by Rupert Murdoch. Watson styles himself as Murdoch’s nemesis and his standing in the party has grown in proportion to the ferocity of his battle with News Corp. In that key respect, he has greater loyalty to Miliband, whose political stock is just as heavily invested in the moral crusade against Murdochism and all its nefarious ways.

Increasingly, I hear Labour people question whether the famous Balls machine is the force it once was. (Which probably explains why there is a bit more chatter directed against him, since fear of reprisal would once have kept criticism more muted.) None of this detracts from the essential fact that Balls remains one of the Labour party’s most experienced, intelligent and astute political operators. No-one disputes his formidable and acute grasp of economics and his capacity in politics, as one shadow cabinet colleague puts it, “to always see two moves ahead.” Aside from all the mythology, gossip and neurotic navel-gazing lower down the ranks, the shadow chancellor is someone who must be taken seriously and whose removal from the shadow Treasury portfolio could certainly not be undertaken lightly. That is why Ed Miliband appears not to be in any kind of hurry to do it and very probably won’t do it at all.

But as big a question for Ed Miliband as the matter of who delivers Labour’s economic message is the question of who will run the party’s general election campaign; who will craft the strategy, shape the message and ensure it is delivered in the right way? At the moment, the default would be the Watson-Dugher team. There are plenty of people in the party who think they might not be the ideal candidates. “It would just be ‘Tory tax cuts for millionaires’ on a loop”, says one sceptical party insider.

There is a growing clamour for Miliband to name a high-profile figure who will take strategic control of party’s offer to the country. Ideally, it would be someone of sufficient stature that the appointment would send a frisson of anxiety through the Conservative ranks. Do not be surprised if David Miliband's name soon starts floating around in discussions of this hypothetical vacancy.

The Tories have George Osborne fulfilling the strategic function and have recently put Lynton Crosby in charge at a more operational level. Opinion in Westminster is divided as to whether Crosby is a campaigning mastermind or a massive liability to Downing Street. Even the Tories themselves aren’t sure. But no one doubts that his main skill is in getting people focused and organised. He is a notorious bringer of discipline. (He helped secure Boris Johnson’s mayoral victories partly just by making sure his candidate took the whole process seriously enough and turned up to work on time.)

The Tories are starting to get properly organised for the battle of 2015. Labour needs to get its own machine tuned and oiled for combat. But whose machine will it be?

Labour Party deputy chair and campaign coordinator Tom Watson. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.