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

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

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