Michael Dugher speaking at Labour conference last year. Photo: YouTube screengrab
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"Too many pointy-heads and too few street fighters": Labour's Michael Dugher on what went wrong

Michael Dugher MP, who served as vice-chair of the party in Ed Miliband's top team, on identity politics, emotion over intellect, and "fucking up" the Scottish referendum campaign.

Michael Dugher was watching television at home in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, when the exit poll was released at 10pm on 7 May. Normally, he is willing to concede the remote control to his three children, who prefer the Disney Channel to politics, even when their father is on screen. But this was a moment he couldn’t miss. “It was quite a big shock,” Dugher says, wincing at the memory of the poll, which gave the Conservatives a firm lead. “It was genuine disbelief.”

He sighs. “And then we had the Nun­eaton result [a target seat, which Labour lost]. It’s funny, really. It’s like conceding loads of ­early goals and you know the rest of the game is over. I knew we were buggered.”

It can’t be easy for someone such as Dugher to lose control of the ball as spectacularly as Labour did that night. A veteran backroom operator, he is still known in Westminster for his time in Downing Street as Gordon Brown’s spokesman. After his election as MP for Barnsley East in 2010, he continued in the vein of a Brownite fixer for Ed Miliband’s team, becoming party vice-chair in 2011, doggedly attacking the government and keeping an eye on the grass roots.

But this formerly loyal figure now has something to get off his chest. We meet on the Commons Terrace the Monday after the weekend of shock and heartache post Labour’s defeat. I can see a Tory MP enjoying a bottle of champagne with his staff two tables away. Dugher is attempting to eat a collapsing burger from a polystyrene box. I can’t help commenting that at least it’s not a bacon sandwich. He grins, valiantly.

The Yorkshireman is back in parliament for the first meeting of Labour’s new shadow cabinet, in which he’ll remain shadow transport secretary (a position he has held since last November). He looks smart and ready for business, in a dark jacket, pale blue shirt and gold cufflinks. But his eyes, squinting against the glare of the afternoon sun, ­betray his exhaustion.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Dugher increased his vote share and majority. But Ukip still came in second in Barnsley East, with more than 9,000 votes. “I was one of the people in the party pressing for a stronger response against Ukip back in 2013, and was frustrated that it didn’t happen,” he says. “But I certainly did it in my own patch.” He is perturbed by Labour’s failure to connect with the white working-class population it used to represent. “Working-class voters are not core vote any more – you saw that in Scotland, you saw that in England,” he says. “When we fail politically, we fail the people that we came into politics to represent. I find that – being entirely self-critical – absolutely unforgivable.”

Labour’s vice-chair grew up in a pit village ten miles from his constituency, part of a family of six living in a three-bed house overlooking the colliery. It was his work in unions that landed him a job as a special ­adviser. Yet he didn’t manage to use his background to steer Miliband’s team.

“Like other aspects of our election campaign, we were a bit behind the curve on Ukip. To be honest, the party only really got it after May last year. But it had been frustrating, me and a number of colleagues, who had been . . .” he trails off. “There was a ­naive assumption, back in 2013, that, because Ukip was bad for the Tories, therefore it must be good for us. Whereas, it was really bad for the Tories but quite bad for us.

“We need to drill down and deal with that. These are basically white working-class people. All of us in politics have had blind spots and everything else, but I grew up in a pit village in the Seventies and Eighties, through the miners’ strike. That is the demographic I really do understand.

“Spend time in the real world,” he adds. “We do dwell in London, the Labour Party. And London has cheek-by-jowl poverty . . . but the truth is, there is more to this country than that kind of metropolitan, multicultural, liberal left that is a big part of London. I thought the best thing Ed did was about One Nation. And we just dropped that.”

Dugher admits that Labour’s campaign “didn’t have a wide reach” and is effusive about needing to appeal to the “aspirational middle class” – something recently voiced by leadership candidates Liz ­Kendall and Chuka Umunna as well as by members of the Blairite old guard such as Peter Mandelson. “Equally, you have to reach out to the alienated working-class voters,” he adds. “Aspiration is not an exclusive thing for middle-class voters. Working-class voters are aspirational.”

He places both hands over his heart as he says, “I know that, personally. If you’d have asked me aged ten what I wanted . . . I would have said I would’ve liked my parents to be able to afford a car; I would’ve liked us to go on a foreign holiday. We lived in a warm, loving house, but it was quite a small house for six people, and I might have liked my own bedroom. That’s working-class aspiration.”

This was overlooked by Miliband’s top team, who were drawn from a narrow background. “I’ve always thought that politics is 90 per cent emotion. All parties need a combination of people with different talents and reaches. Ed was very intellectual, he had a brilliant brain; he felt that ideas were the most important thing in politics. And he’s right. But I sometimes felt that he surrounded himself with too many people who were socially just like him: all living within a stone’s throw of each other in north London, all had been to the same university, and all kind of intellectual ­academics . . .”

It is easy to say such things in hindsight, but did Dugher ever warn Miliband about his myopic circle of advisers? “Loads of times. It happened all the time,” Dugher nods. “He’s someone who listened. But he had other people who were more influential, closer to him. You know, you win some, you lose some. But that was always a worry I had. It was too many pointy-heads and too few street fighters.

“As a leader, you’ve got to surround yourself with different people. Ed had some of those people, so I don’t want to overstate it. But too many were just like him. And, for them, politics was 90 per cent intellectual. If the big thing out there is anti politics, you’ve got to show that, actually, you do get it, you are in touch, and you understand.

“When I say it’s 90 per cent emotional, the new axis we’ve got in politics now – the politics of identity – is all about how people feel. We’ve got to get wise to that.”

Dugher refers repeatedly to English identity. “In parts of my constituency, they do fly the flag. And they’re right to be proud of it. It’s as much about their pride and identity as it is a cry for help,” he says. “When they fly that flag, they say, ‘I’m proud of this country, I’m proud to be English, I’m proud of where I come from’; but also, ‘We haven’t gone away, and we deserve a voice, too’.”

With visible frustration, Dugher recalls speaking to Miliband before the Scottish referendum result. “I said polling day will be all about the Scots, but Friday morning will be all about the English. And we need to be out ahead of Cameron with a really serious offer to the English. In the end, it was Cameron who was on the steps of Downing Street. Now, his offer [English votes for English laws] was minuscule, and a threat to the Union; but we were slow off the mark.

“Because too many people didn’t get it, and because we’d incompetently scheduled our conference for the weekend after the referendum, the leadership wanted to close down the issue, and to go back to talking about the cost of living, or whatever it was. We should have welcomed that opportunity to lead that debate. Instead, it was a kind of ‘constitutional convention’, and a ‘regional tour’,” he grimaces. “Which I just don’t think did it.”

Dugher is even more despairing of what he calls Labour’s “annihilation” in Scotland. He blames the Better Together campaign. “Scotland and our approach to it was an unmitigated disaster. We totally fucked up that referendum campaign – and that would almost be a generous and kind interpretation,” he gives a hollow laugh.

“There was a highly visible elephant trap that the SNP set for us, which is that Labour and No would be for the status quo, for Westminster, for London, for the old political establishment and elites – and Scottish Labour all joined hands and they jumped into that elephant trap,” he says. “We shouldn’t have been in bed with the Tories. It was a complete strategic disaster. It killed us. It should have been a contest between two competing alternative visions for a changed Scotland.”

He reserves harsh words for the Scottish Labour MPs, all but one of whom are now out of a job. According to Dugher, many were apathetic about campaigning in their “safe” seats, and shut their English colleagues out of discussions. “You had the politics of neglect,” he says. “Not all – there are some great colleagues who worked extremely hard. But we also had a number of people who had not delivered a leaflet in decades. And there was always an attitude from some of our Scots [MPs] here, that they knew best. ‘Leave Scotland to us,’ they used to say. Well, that worked out well, didn’t it?

“At the same time as making a complete balls-up of Scotland, it had profound implications for England. They wanted to operate in Scotland without any reference at all to the impact on England. Every time they talked about further devolution, the English in the Labour Party were excluded from that conversation.”

Dugher is cagey about who can pull Labour out of this nadir. He does, however, recommend that the party takes its time. “I don’t think we should have a coronation. And it’s perfectly possible for us to chew gum and walk at the same time. We can have a thorough internal debate about our way forward while going after this Tory government.”

But one thing set in stone is that no future Labour leader will ever carve their pledges on to an actual stone again. “Every campaign has balls-ups,” Dugher sighs. “That was a kind of 12-foot, granite, marble, cock-up. But did it change the weather? Nah.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage