Inside “Next Labour”

Douglas Alexander and Ed Miliband are not only spearheading Labour’s election campaign, but leading

It was, in many ways, a classic New Labour gathering: a minimalist north London drawing room, freshly squeezed orange juice and mineral water being served, fruit and HobNobs being eaten, and top of the agenda for a five-hour Sunday strategy meeting were the key manifesto messages for the election. Ideas were distributed, and those attending were expected to turn up with notes, not just on party policy but, inevitably, on the Conservatives as well.

There was one important difference between this and any equivalent meeting in election campaigns gone by: it was attended, indeed run, by a new generation of Labour power brokers. This is a generation looking to forge a new agenda for the new decade, not one wishing to frame the coming election as a bid for a "fourth term".

Hosting the meeting on Sunday 7 March was Ed Miliband, Labour's manifesto co-ordinator, whom many see as a future leader. Sitting beside him was his close friend Douglas Alexander, election campaign co-ordinator. In addition, there were advisers from their offices and the No 10 Policy Unit.

Miliband, who is 40, and Alexander, 42, are leading what you might call "Next Labour", a post-Blair, post-Brown generation of ambitious cabinet ministers who are determined not to give up power to the Tories. Though their formative political experiences were during the decade-long civil war between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, they are, in party terms, "postwar" politicians, desperate to move on.

While Brown concentrates on governing, Miliband and Alexander, along with the New Labour veteran Peter Mandelson, are carefully guiding Labour into campaign mode.

Miliband and Alexander first met 20 years ago in the kitchen of Ed's elder brother, David. Ed was an undergraduate, his brother worked for Blair and Alexander worked for Brown.

The bond between Alexander and the younger Miliband deepened on a holiday in Ireland in 2000, which they shared with James Purnell, another member of the Next Labour generation who surprised his peers last month by announcing he is to stand down as an MP. Since 2000, Miliband and Alexander have holidayed together in Scotland, France and the US.

In 1997, Alexander, then a practising lawyer in Scotland, took leave of absence to share the Treasury office in which Miliband was working as a special adviser; in 1999 they were both responsible for the Scottish Parliament election campaign that overturned the Scottish National Party's poll lead.

Despite his youthful appearance, Alexander is now an old hand at election campaigns. He insists, however, that this may be his toughest yet, and that he and his colleagues face "the fight of our lives" to retain office.

Comeback kids

Several cabinet ministers have long despaired of Brown in private; another recently told friends that he is happy to be sidelined so that he can avoid sharing the blame for defeat. Others on Labour's fringes argue in private that the party could use a period in opposition to renew. On a practical level, they believe that losing the next election would allow Labour to sidestep harsh spending decisions and the ill-feeling that would follow.

If some have given up the fight, Alexander and Miliband believe not only that Labour must fight hard to win, but that it can win. To make this happen, the pair are having to work long hours. Aside from a brief appearance with his father and son at the Emirates Stadium in north London to watch the recent Brazil-Ireland football friendly, Alexander accepts that, for the next couple of months at least, he will have very little spare time. "The Brazil game was the first night off I've had in as long as I can remember," he told me. "This is the second Sunday in a row that I'll see more of Ed [Miliband] than my wife and kids."

At 8.30 each morning he attends a strategy meeting, in his role as co-ordinator, with Peter Mandelson and Harriet Harman. With departmental as well as party duties - Alexander flew to Afghanistan after the 7 March meeting - the day then often runs into the early hours of the next. "We are still behind," he says, sitting in a café near Ed Miliband's house in north London. "But the momentum is with us."

As the New Statesman revealed last week, Labour's 2010 strategy was drawn up in December and submitted to the Prime Minister by Alexander two days before Christmas. The plan proposed the campaign strapline "A future fair for all" (this was accepted and became Labour's official slogan at a launch last month); it also outlined the main campaign themes and included a 150-page dossier on the cost of Conservative spending and tax policies, subsequently launched by Alistair Darling in early January.

In the event, this year's early sparring against the Tories has gone better than most within Labour could have hoped. Indeed, Alexander expresses genuine surprise at how unprepared the Tories have been. "'The same old Tories' is not a line - it's a truth," he says. "Change is a process, not a destination."

He shows me a file of past Conservative manifesto pledges that highlights similarities between policies then and today. "What we've seen of the Tories' draft manifesto suggests that they've changed the cover, but not the content. In 2005 they asked: 'Are you thinking what we're thinking?' But they seem still to be thinking what they were thinking."

He adds, with a smile: "It's a bit like someone who puts an old pair of flares in the drawer for five years and then gets them out again to see
if they're fashionable." Alexander believes that the Tories are trapped by their own manifesto, which will show their policies to be in disharmony with the prevailing mood music.

Alexander and Miliband were among the first few members of cabinet to realise that David Cameron, far from being the "heir to Blair", had not changed or modernised his party. The document detailing the parallels between past and present Tory manifestos shows an alarming number of policies - such as the cap on immigration and pledges to cut inheritance tax - that differ little, if at all, from those promised in 2005 and 2001.

Can Labour win the campaign, given the disparity in funding between the two parties? (The Conservatives are thought to be planning to spend £18m - the legal maximum - during the four-week election campaign; Labour will have £8m at best.) The answer lies in how Labour deploys its resources. So while the Tories are spending heavily on more conventional forms of campaigning - such as posters and leaflets - Labour has been busy making direct contact with voters. "The figure is in excess of 100,000 face-to-face contacts every week," says a senior party insider. "That's roughly three times the level we were making at a similar point in 2005."

As Will Straw has noted on the Left Foot Forward blog, Professors Alan Gerber and Don Green of Yale University have shown that face-to-face contact has a far greater impact on voter turnout than either phone calls or mail. Leaflets increase turnout by 1.2 per cent; volunteer phone calls increase turnout by 3.8 per cent; and door-to-door canvassing increases turnout by between 7 and 11 per cent. "At the end of the day, it's people not posters that win elections," Alexander says.

The New Statesman has learned that the Tories are planning to launch another poster blitz, and have reserved billboard sites across the country. This, after they spent £500,000 on a poster campaign (the infamous "airbrushed" Cameron) that was widely ridiculed and traduced in the blogosphere.

On the ground, there is little sign of a concerted campaign of door-knocking by the Tories. Instead, unpersonalised leaflets are being distributed en masse, having first been vetted by Tory central command.

Explaining the dip in the polls for the Tories over the past few weeks, Alexander sees a link between old policies and old campaign techniques. "They haven't done the heavy lifting on their policies, and they haven't done the heavy lifting on their campaigning. And, in any campaign, if you haven't done the heavy lifting, it all starts to unravel."

Miliband or Miliband?

If, against all odds, Labour retains office, Alexander and Miliband will deserve much of the credit. But if Labour loses, neither may feature in the leadership contest that would follow. Alexander is not promoting himself as a future leader, while it is possible that Ed Miliband will not bring himself to challenge his elder brother, David, whom many party insiders expect to stand and win.

Miliband Sr will doubtless be challenged by Ed Balls, a Brown loyalist, but one whom critics see as a less collegiate member of the group. Balls's wife, Yvette Cooper, the 40-year-old Work and Pensions Secretary, recently tipped as potentially "Labour's first permanent woman leader" by Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society, remains one to watch. Liam Byrne, the 39-year-old Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the Health Secretary, Andy Burnham, 40, are also mentioned as outside contenders.

However, one key government insider says: "The next leader will be called Ed or Miliband. No, let me correct that. He will be called Miliband or Miliband."

The leadership question is for another day. But, one way or another, it looks as if power is shifting to the "Next Labour" generation.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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