Miliband's reshuffle was post-Blairite, not anti-Blairite

The changes were designed to accelerate the process of re-branding Labour as neither old nor new; neither Blair nor Brown – but wholly Milibandist.

At some point the redundancy of classifying Labour MPs into "Blairites" and "Brownites" will be complete. That point is not now, judging by much of the reaction to Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet reshuffle. The demotions of Liam Byrne, Jim Murphy and Stephen Twigg – all usually characterised as devotees of the Tonyist creed – has been seized by Conservatives as yet more proof that the opposition has taken leave of its centrist senses.

The counter-argument from Miliband’s allies is that Blair acolytes have been promoted too. Charlie Falconer has been drafted in as a senior advisor. Tristram Hunt is the new shadow education secretary ("not exactly Len McCluskey’s idea of the best person for that job," as one very senior party figure said to me last night). Douglas Alexander has the role of chairing Labour’s election campaign – and he ran David Miliband’s leadership campaign.

But then, if you want to be all purist about political genealogy, you could say that Alexander is really a Brownite who wandered only half-way down the road to Blairite perdition/virtuous Damascene conversion (delete according to factional inclinations) by backing the ill-starred older brother in 2010.

One principal motive behind the reshuffle is to accelerate the process of re-branding Labour as neither old nor new; neither Blair nor Brown – but wholly Milibandist. A bunch of MPs from the 2010 parliamentary intake have been promoted. They now make up nearly a third of the shadow cabinet. That puts important jobs in the hands of people who can plausibly claim to be untainted by the feuds of the last administration. That is no small advantage.

The fact that Labour’s haggard slump to defeat in 2010 is so recent poses problems for Miliband both in terms of voter perception and party management. It makes it hard for him to manoeuvre in any direction without it being interpreted through the prism of ancient vendetta. Never mind left or right, the problem has been going forwards when so much media coverage – and so many of the personal dynamics around the shadow cabinet table – have been coloured by brooding recollections of who briefed against whom one rainy Wednesday afternoon in 2003. The publication of memoirs by former Brown media hit man Damian McBride on the eve of the Labour conference only reinforced the impression that some new cast members were required on stage. As one beneficiary of yesterday’s reshuffle put it, the important thing was to have more people who could say, when asked about the stories in that book, "Damian McWho?" In other words, Miliband needs more people around who can claim to be focused on the future not the past – and look as if they mean it. That, at least, is the ambition. It hasn't escaped anyone's notice that the most senior figures from Brown's days in Downing Street keep their seats at Labour's top table. Some faces from the past are more past-it than others, apparently.

One appointment that captures the complex nature of Miliband's motives is the decision to put Rachel Reeves in charge of the work and pensions brief. Reeves has spent the last couple of years pondering the fiscal challenge that Labour faces in the next parliament if it wins an election. As recently as last month she was resisting the idea of making a pre-conference commitment to scrap the coalition's "bedroom tax" on the grounds that the Tories would fling it back at the opposition as proof of spending laxity. By contrast, Byrne was the one pushing for the bedroom tax to be opposed, partly because he felt that demoralised activists urgently needed something to cheer them up. That doesn’t quite support the claim that an axe-wielding Blairite ultra has been ditched to carve out space for lefty lurches.

The big problem with Byrne wasn’t exactly his views. It was his image as the outrider for the party’s furthest right flank that made it hard for large sections of the party to swallow the message that welfare reform and benefit cuts are unavoidable. The messenger was contaminating the message for people whose consent was vital for keeping Miliband’s show on the road. I doubt we will see the opposition now suddenly promise to lavish more spending on social security. On the contrary, a central part of Reeves’s task will be to persuade voters that Labour can be trusted to manage the DWP budget prudently. But she might be able to do it in a way that doesn’t provoke cries of crypto-Tory treason from the grassroots.

Miliband doesn’t need to sack or demote "Blairites" to move left or distance himself from the New Labour legacy. The conventional reading of his leadership suggests he’s done a fair amount of that already. He does, however, want to get beyond the stage where his every action is subjected to a test of Blairism and found wanting by people who suppose that Blair had the only formula for delivering a Labour election victory. 2015 could never be a re-run of 2005 or 2001 or 1997. There must be another way.

Of course, the theoretical existence of such an alternative route to power doesn’t prove that Miliband has found it.  

Ed Miliband at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder