In 1995, just as people were beginning to get their head round the fact Labour was heading for government, a memo popped up from Philip Gould telling them they were wrong. Focusing on Labour’s internal organisation, Gould warned that Labour’s strategists were dangerously uncoordinated. What was needed was “a unitary command structure leading directly to the party leader”. Amid cries of “control freakery”, this rigid command structure was duly established. And the rest is history.
Ed Miliband urgently needs his own Gould Memo. Labour is being outfought and out-thought by the Tories. The big strategic battles are starting to be won – with relative ease – by the coalition. Welfare, Europe and the economy, (which should be a slam-dunk for Labour), have all been ceded to the coalition.
There are several reasons for this. The Conservatives, aware they made a mistake writing off Ed Miliband early in his leadership, have gone on the offensive. Ministers are finally allowing David Cameron to build a fragile firewall between his government and the crises of last summer, the so-called omnishambles.
Yet the biggest problem is that Labour’s top team is not sufficiently organised to meet the new Tory threat.
“Ed’s got some good press people and he’s got [Jon] Cruddas trying to sort out policy structures,” said an insider, “but there’s no one to manage political strategy. No one’s saying, ‘Well, we could say this and get a good headline in the Mirror tomorrow, or we could say nothing and get a dozen good headlines in two and a half years’ time.’”
There are a number of people within Miliband’s inner circle who could qualify for that role. There is Tim Livesey, his chief of staff; but while Livesey is respected for his organisational skills he is widely regarded as insufficiently “political”. Another candidate is his senior adviser Stewart Wood, but his strengths lie in policy and he is seen by many in the shadow cabinet as a political theorist rather than a strategist.
Miliband himself relies heavily on the counsel of his old flatmate Marc Stears, but Stears is perceived by some as too academic and insufficiently willing to challenge his lifelong friend. “Ed uses Marc as a political comfort blanket,” says a source.
Another high-profile candidate is Tom Watson, the barbarian who single-handedly tore down the gates of the Murdoch citadel. But there are some people who question whether Watson has the appetite or discipline for such a role. “When you’ve got used to turning up in restaurants and having people like Dustin Hoffman sending over a bottle of champagne, strategy meetings can become a bit dull,” an MP told me.
The person who many shadow cabinet members agree would be best suited for the role is Michael Dugher. Gordon Brown’s former spokesman is well regarded – and liked – across the political spectrum, and is seen to have a killer instinct, aligned to the judgement about when to use it.
“Dugher would be perfect,” says a shadow cabinet source, “but what he needs is for Ed to give him the formal authority to start pulling things together.”
It would require Dugher to adopt a lower profile, start tweeting a little less about curries and Yorkshire puddings, and tone down the pretence he’s just emerged from a Barnsley pit-head. But he could yet be Ed Miliband’s Philip Gould.
And Miliband needs him.