Ed Miliband is shaping the news agenda, unlike his opponents. Photo: Getty
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"Gamed out"? At least Ed Miliband's in the news cycle

Labour's policy review chief was recorded saying his leader is being "gamed out" by the media. But at least Ed's making the news, unlike his political opponents.

Many people in politics over the past few weeks have been saying that the Labour party is having a torrid time. Rumours and leaks of backstabbing and splits in the Labour leader’s circle have sprung up alongside an onslaught of negative commentary about Ed Miliband, both from the media and some within his own party.

One source close to the shadow cabinet tells me that the feeling in the party is “pretty bad”, and that they’d “hate to be a Labour politician right now, least of all Ed Miliband.”

Another Labour figure tells me about factions working against each other within the top tiers of the party, and I’ve heard from a number of insiders about blue on blue (well, red on red) negative briefings from certain Labour frontbench teams.

So it’s not just the press taking opportune pictures of bacon butties. The party is being affected by ragged relations at the top as well, and all this is in spite of a fairly stubborn poll lead.

Following an intervention in the Financial Times by Labour peer and Miliband’s former adviser Maurice Glasman, who accused the leader of “conformist mediocrity” and said the party is missing a “sense of direction”, and Labour policy review chief Jon Cruddas referring to a “dead hand” at the party’s centre blocking reforms, the latter made headlines again last week when a recording of him warning that Miliband is being “gamed out” by the press was leaked to the Telegraph:

“He just gets gamed out every day, every week because of the news cycle, the media, levels of intrusion, the party management side.”

But it only seems as if the Labour leader is being “gamed out” because he’s actually part of the news cycle, setting the news agenda a number of times in the past few weeks from a whole host of policy proposals including a radical shake-up of benefits for young people, transforming local government, wooing business, and a strong stance on rail policy and ownership, among many others.

Of course he’s going to be knocked down occasionally by those opposing his plans, and of course he’s going to have a few bits of data questioned by those scrutinising the proposals of our potential next government. But at least he’s going out there, almost every day, unveiling the plans he’d like to put into action if he were to become prime minister next year.

Miliband’s perseverance, both in powering on with his proposals, and ignoring pops at his personality, is a lot more than we’ve seen any of the other parties doing recently. As the Telegraph’s Peter Oborne wrote earlier this month: “Every day Mr Miliband arrives in his office, takes off his coat, and takes the bullets. I salute him.”

If Miliband is being “gamed out”, then our current PM isn’t even in the game. Where has he been? India? Or was it Scotland? All we’ve seen of our PM, and indeed DPM, is a recent announcement of emergency powers being rushed through for police surveillance – legislation at worst a hurried invasion of our civil liberties and at best a bit of a dull, technical response to some crusty EU directive. And something to do with strikes, which is just a bit passé and Eighties, really.

“I know it looks like Ed’s personal ratings are going down,” a Labour aide admits, “but at least he has ideas. This government is simply not legislating.”

And it’s true. There is very little coming from the coalition frontbench of any interest to the media at least, unless you count the unplanned fire-fighting of stories that suddenly emerge, such as the recent Eighties Westminster paedophile ring allegations, which eventually sprung the Home Secretary into action.

There’s a big, and favourable, contrast between a whole heap of proper policies from Ed Miliband – even if they are being ruthlessly scrutinised ­– and a government that briefed out a tax on plastic bags as the centrepiece of their final Queen’s Speech. Forget "game out", that's called "game over".

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit