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Where are the Milibandites when Ed needs them?

The Labour leader has to look like the head of a movement when he takes on Unite, not a lone crusader.

Miliband in auditorium
Ed Miliband. Photo: Getty

Political leaders are never short of unhelpful advice in a crisis. Wherever Ed Miliband turns he is told that he must be bold, that his actions must be decisive, that this deadly row with Unite and Len McCluskey could also be an opportunity, containing the seeds of renewed leadership and status.

I wrote something to that effect at the end of last week. Shortly afterwards, the messages started to come in from people who want Ed to succeed – aides and loyal MPs – saying, in effect, “yes, fine, but what?” Good question. Difficult question. A moment to reflect on how hard it is being leader of the Labour party.

Miliband’s team know they need to take charge of the situation. They know this is becoming a defining moment in the Labour’s leader’s bid to become Britain’s next Prime Minister. They know the outcome they need is Miliband emerging stronger, more clearly defined in the public imagination as a man not to be underestimated – a man whose hidden steel is revealed. What isn’t clear is how they get to there from where they are now.

The first thing they need to settle is the parameters of the battlefield. Is Ed Miliband’s leadership going to be proven in his capacity to deal with the small matter of alleged vote-rigging in Falkirk or the larger question of Unite’s explicit political strategy to influence Labour by exerting its financial and organisational muscle in candidate selections? Len McCluskey denies there was anything wrong with the Falkirk process. That is true, I suppose, once you accept that the job of getting as many Unite-dependent MPs in parliament overrides any other consideration of best practice. According to a solid Leninist ends-justifies-the-means view of the situation, Falkirk is, as some Unite officials declared it, “exemplary”. However, in terms of expressing the kind of political organisation Labour wants to be and be seen to be, Falkirk is a monumental disaster. As one party insider put it to me the other day, “the choice now is between open and closed. It’s two different kinds of politics.”

So Miliband needs to be clear about whether he is trying to close an institutional loophole or change an institutional culture. His article in this morning’s Observer suggests it is the latter, which is entirely the right choice. He makes the connection between Falkirk and general public alienation from politics. He makes the point that the main challenge for the wider labour movement is making itself relevant to successive generations of workers who may not be members of trade unions. So far so good.

Miliband also says Labour should “mend, not end” its link with the unions. That too is a sensible position to take. It is the only realistic option. The Labour leader is walking along a narrow ridge. On one side is the danger of capitulation to the McCluskey agenda, accepting that union money has a veto over party reform. But on the other side is the danger of embracing a definition of leadership cooked up by Labour’s enemies in the Conservative party and the Conservative press. They will set tests of aggression towards the unions that he will never pass, while vandalising his support base in the attempt. How well he navigates this challenge will be decided by the definition he chooses for the word “mend.” You can mend some things by covering them in gaffa tape. Or you can take them apart and put them back together again. I sense in this situation a major institutional revision is in order. Ironically, one test of its effectiveness may turn out to be creating a system that, had it been in place in 2010, would have led to a different outcome in the Labour leadership contest. Miliband may not like that feature of the debate, but he would be unwise to ignore it completely.

The Labour leader thought Len McCluskey and Tom Watson were on his side. It is clear they were not. Miliband’s real friends are the people who now come out clearly and visibly to say without equivocation that the culture inside the party must change and that they believe Ed is the man with the requisite moral judgement and political capability to do it. At the moment, there are not too many of those people around. When David Cameron gets into trouble he can normally rely on some cabinet heavy-hitters and retired big beasts to intervene on his side. (When John Major is on the Today programme it is normally a sign that Downing Street is feeling besieged.)

Who are the equivalent people closing ranks around Ed Miliband? He has lost the protection of the old Brown machine and the old Blair brigade is watching from the wings mouthing, “we told you so”. The Labour leader has supporters in the party. There is no shortage of MPs who wish him well and want him to succeed. They all do, to the extent that they want a Labour government and Miliband is the only leader they’ve got. The vital missing component from the project has always been the sense of a movement larger than Ed himself – the aggregate charisma of a bunch of people who are easily and clearly defined by shared purpose and shared belief. Three years after the election it is still hard to identify a prominent and powerful phalanx of ardent “Milibandites”. If they are out there, they now need to make themselves heard. Their leader needs them.