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

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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