Ed Miliband's temperamental spin doctor must stay
Tom Baldwin might not be widely liked, but he is starting to make an impact.
Ed Miliband has spent the past week or so intervening. On Jimmy Carr’s tax affairs, he said: “I’m not in favour of tax avoidance, obviously, but I don’t think it is for politicians to lecture people about morality.” On immigration, he said: “If we are to address people’s concerns, Labour must change its approach to immigration. But we will only be able to answer people’s concerns on immigration if we change our economy, too.”
Gone are the laboured, technocratic statements that characterised the early months of his leadership. Miliband has been deploying what are being branded by Labour insiders as “strategic interventions”. And they are working. “Canny”, was the FT’s description of his response to Carr. “Ed Miliband is right to tackle the toxic immigration debate,” wrote the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, hardly the most xenophobic of commentators.
What is behind all this skilful, forensic strategising, I asked a shadow cabinet insider. “Tom Baldwin,” came the reply. “Ed’s shifted him to a new role. And he’s doing a good job.”
It was a surprising response for two reasons. First is that the moody and acerbic spin doctor doesn’t have many fans in the shadow cabinet. And the other is that it has been widely predicted he will be leaving Miliband after this year’s Labour conference.
When he was first appointed, Baldwin, a former Times journalist, was supposedly in charge of Miliband’s overarching communications strategy. But he was quickly sucked into day-to-day media management, a role to which he wasn’t well suited. “Bob Roberts [Labour’s newly appointed executive director of communications] is much better at managing the lobby,” said a party source, “and he and Tom don’t get on. You had a situation where Bob and Michael Dugher [MP for Barnsley East] were managing the 24-hour cycle, while Stewart Wood and Greg Beales were managing the long-range political issues. Tom ended up falling between two stools.”
Not any longer. A turning point was when Miliband tried to exploit the post-Budget “Pastygate” furore. He and Balls did a photo opportunity outside a Greggs bakery: they wandered out of the shop munching pasties but Miliband ended up looking like Balls’s researcher. That was a wake-up call.
It was noticeable that Baldwin’s pre-briefing for the Miliband immigration speech was much more tightly focused than in the past. He carried a concise top line for journalists. “He did well,” said an observer, before delivering the ultimate accolade: “His briefing was even sharper than [the shadow home secretary] Yvette Cooper’s.”
Baldwin is benefiting from the more positive narrative surrounding Miliband at present as well as enjoying more political space to operate in now that the mutterings over the leadership have been silenced temporarily. But former lobby colleagues think he has finally found his niche. “All this ‘Cameron’s out of touch’ stuff is all Tom,” I was told. “He’s been pushing it hard and it’s starting to cut through. You can see it in the polls.”
Baldwin may not be good at winning friends, but he is starting to influence people. Ed Miliband needs his temperamental spin doctor to stay by his side for a while longer.