Labour's new civil war
All is not well within the Labour Party. David Miliband’s backers are regrouping. The Ballsites are
On Monday 27 September, David Miliband stood dead centre on the main stage at the Labour conference in Manchester. His back ramrod straight. Here was the Lost Leader. Master of none that he surveyed. But he had come to deliver an important message. We must unite, he said. We must come together. An end to the briefings. An end to the factions. An end to the cliques. His audience rose as one.
Fast forward 24 hours. The bars of Labour 2010 in Manchester are jammed with delegates dissecting another speech, the one made by the new leader, Ed Miliband. In the bar of the Midland hotel, a former Blairite cabinet minister shakes his head and says to me: "It's a disaster." A senior Brownite mutters into his mobile: "Anti-business, weak on crime, no message." Another Gordon Brown loyalist shrugs and says: "Doesn't matter. In two years we'll have him out and Yvette Cooper in."
Across town a senior frontbencher sits down to dinner with the editorial team of a Sunday newspaper. What's his view of the speech? "If Ed thinks I'm going to follow that crap about not banging up criminals, he's got another thing coming. Life should mean life, and I'm going to keep saying it." The journalists smile. Did he know, they tease, that when Andy Coulson heard Ed praise Ken Clarke on lenient sentencing, he punched the air.
In the Radisson hotel a member of the new leader's campaign team looks at me, bemused: "We keep reaching out to people. They just keep brushing us off. They don't want to know." On the other side of the bar another Ed supporter clenches his fist in triumph: "Fuck the Blairites. How many divisions have they got?"
No briefings. No factions. No cliques.
The Labour Party has entered a post-cold-war era. The two great Blairite and Brownite power blocks have fractured. Where once there was iron certainty, now there is only doubt. "People are confused," one MP tells me. "They're used to knowing who or what they're for and what they're against. Now all that's gone. To be honest, they're a bit rudderless."
The politicians. The activists. The spinners. The strategists. The thinkers. The policy wonks. The organisers. The gurus. The army and camp followers that make up the great Labour tribe are emerging, blinking, into a new dawn. Some are fearful, while others are hopeful. All recognise the landscape around them has changed.
“New Labour was about marshalling everyone into Tony Blair's big tent," says the Compass chair, Neal Lawson. "That's the old politics. The new pluralism is about acknowledging there are lots of little tents. How you build those tents into a strong, progressive community is the challenge."
It's a challenge that excites him. No wonder. Compass spent the years of Blair and Brown out in the cold. Now, as he puts it, "Ed Miliband is playing all of our greatest hits."
Not everyone is impressed by the tune. On the other side of the encampment sits Progress: centrist thinkers to some, Blairite outriders to others. "Our message to Compass is, 'Good luck'," says Progress's deputy director, Richard Angell. "Have a go. If Neal thinks his leftist, statist prospectus is the route back to power, good luck to him."
The old dividing lines may be becoming blurred. But they have not been erased. This is why Ed Miliband's team are monitoring, with a vigilance bordering on paranoia, the signals emanating from the shattered bunkers of the two old great powers. How are the grizzled Blairite and Brownite veterans adjusting to the new world order?
Among the former, there is a clear sense of preparing for a long game. "We have to be realistic," says one insider. "If David had won, he would have been constructing a ten-year strategy. Unless there's a miracle, we're not going to win the next election, certainly not with an overall majority. We need to plan on that basis."
The plan, given the rancour that existed between the Blairites and Ed Miliband during the leadership contest, is a surprising one. "We've got to reach out," says another senior Blairite. "We've got an opportunity to shape Ed. To mould his vision. Read his conference speech. The Compass left were claiming it ticked all their boxes. But if you actually read the words, rather than try to interpret them, you see a clear message. The heir to Blair, at least in the short term, is Ed Miliband."
These overtures have been welcomed by Ed Miliband's team. "Look at the leadership election," says one lieutenant. "Ed and David supporters represent more than 80 per cent of the party. That has got to be the basis on which we build the new progressive consensus. The realignment has to start from there."
Former Blairite advisers have been in discussion with Stuart Wood and Greg Beales, Ed Miliband's chief communications and policy aides, about assisting in the development of strategy. There have been "clear the air" talks with members of David Miliband's campaign team. "Take someone like [the shadow defence secretary] Jim Murphy," says a fellow shadow cabinet member who worked with Ed Miliband on the leadership contest.
"When we were doing liaison between the campaigns, he was vicious. Incredibly difficult to work with. But since the election he's been a different person. He's been making a conscious effort to build bridges."
Not all relations are so harmonious. A number of Blairite ministers, such as Hazel Blears, Ben Bradshaw and Pat McFadden, were offered shadow ministerial rolls but refused them. There are policy tensions, especially in areas such as law and order and deficit reduction. "It's all very nice reaching out," says one former Blairite minister, "but it can't just be a choice of either silence or division. You can't just say, 'I'm going to kill New Labour, but don't worry, I'll be personally nice to you.' If I articulate an alternative policy prospectus, I don't want to see that dismissed as an attempt to drag people back to the past."
But the greatest concerns within Ed Miliband's team focus on the Brownites. Or rather, the Ballsites. Definitions are important. The old Brownite faction fractured during the transition to No 10 and split further over the leadership election. Ex-Brownite supporters, such as Douglas Alexander, who worked for David Miliband, and the New Statesman's former owner Geoffrey Robinson, who endorsed him as his second preference, went in one direction. The former chief whip Nick Brown endorsed no one. Younger Brownites such as Tom Watson and Michael Dugher worked for Ed Balls but moved in behind Ed Miliband at a crucial moment in the contest. Balls himself steadfastedly refused to back either of the two front-runners. Keeping track of where these disparate groups are moving is a priority for Team Ed. "People like Tommy [Watson], Michael and Ian Austin are good guys," says one member of the shadow cabinet. "We think we can do business with them". But what of Balls and Cooper? "They're the past. They're history."
The animosity that exists between Ed Miliband's team and Balls is raw and palpable. "Ed Miliband's team are terrified of Ed Balls and Yvette," says one Brownite insider. "They think they're going to come and try to kill him. And the reason they think that is because they will."
Ed Miliband's first shadow cabinet appointments brought this animosity into the open. The decision to withhold the shadow chancellor portfolio from both Balls and Cooper was seen as an act of war. "Stuart Wood was ringing round journalists desperately trying to find out how hard Ed and Yvette were briefing against the appointments," says one friend of the most powerful married couple in politics. "It was embarrassing. If you're going to shaft Ed and Yvette, do it. But don't complain when there's a reaction."
There was a strong reaction. "They're already organising," says one shadow minister. "Yvette has been contacting all the teams identifying one member to be her link person. The cover is she's doing it as part of the women's brief. But everyone knows she's building a base."
Another insider, who is respected by both the Miliband and Balls camps, is more circumspect. "Yes, there was briefing. Ed and Yvette were genuinely upset. But we're at the start of a complex process. Both Ed Balls and Ed Miliband are having to radically reassess the nature of their relationship. That's going to take time. The danger is that good intentions are deliberately misinterpreted the wrong way. Both of them are up for a dialogue."
According to some members of Ed Miliband's team, the decision not to appoint Balls as shadow chancellor was political, not personal. They say he effectively talked himself out of the shadow chancellor role with his increasingly aggressive positioning on the deficit. "He just kept pushing it further and further," says one insider. "We didn't have any choice."
But they reject suggestions that the current deficit-reduction strategy reflects in any way the "Balls Plan". "Balls just isn't on the same page. This is Alan [Johnson's] and Ed's plan. It's nothing to do with Ed and Yvette."
For Balls, there was anger at the way Ed Miliband distanced himself from the government's record during the leadership campaign. "As the campaign went on, Ed [Balls] became more and more frustrated," says one senior aide. "Ed Miliband was acting as if what happened in government had nothing to do with him. It looked like he was dumping on Gordon just to get elected. Ed B didn't like it."
Others are more nuanced. "You have to remember there was a time when Ed Balls was Gordon's go-to guy and Ed Miliband was doing the photocopying," says one senior Brownite. "In the short term, that's hard to take. It needs a readjustment on both sides."
Ed Miliband's team acknowledge that Balls and Cooper pose a threat to their man but believe it is containable. "How many votes did Ed Balls get in the leadership election? OK, Yvette topped the shadow cabinet poll, but when you have to vote for six women, that's not that hard to do. They're just being driven by ego. They're trapped in the past."
The calculation Ed Miliband is making is that there's little appetite within the party for a return to personality-based agitation. That and a belief that the junior former Brownites are genuine in their desire to build a constructive relationship with the new leader. But one observer counsels caution: "People like Tommy, Ian and Michael want to work with Ed Miliband. But they're essentially tribal. If it comes to a war, they'll line up behind Ed and Yvette."
Some jockeying for position is inevitable in the aftermath of a change of political leadership. But, as a rule, structures are quickly created to channel and control those pressures. An impression is developing that Ed Miliband has not yet managed to put those structures in place. "It's clear Ed's team did not have a strategy for victory," I am told by one David Miliband supporter. "They operated purely on the basis of a series of tactical decisions. It's one of the things that have eaten up David the most. He feels he's lost to someone who had no clear idea why he wanted to win."
Even those around Ed Miliband acknowledge that they are on a steep learning curve. "You've got to understand the scale of the problems we've inherited," one shadow cabinet member tells me. "This is a party that's going through a healing process. The scars of the Blair and Brown years run deep. Ed's still a novice rider and he's trying to get to grips with a very large horse."
Some see the criticisms as little more than expressions of bitterness from David Miliband and his supporters. "David had his opportunity," I am told by one MP. "The MPs, the party and the machine were in his pocket. He blew it. He should get over it."
But among other sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party there is nervousness. "There's a sense of a vacuum developing," says a shadow minister. "People are looking for leadership and direction. And at the moment they're not getting it." Another shadow minister laughed at his team's disorganisation during their first Commons questions. "I got up to say something and sat down again. Can't remember what it was . . . It's all a bit of a joke."
Old stagers who lived through the Blair and Brown years are astonished at the extent of the autonomy being granted to the shadow teams. Policy development is being managed internally. Centralised control is minimal. One shadow minister confirmed that none of the teams had received instructions from the leadership on the need to avoid uncosted spending commitments until Alan Johnson demanded it.
“People are just going to have to get used to this," says one shadow minister who did not back Ed Miliband but is warming to his approach. "The days when things were just handed down from on high are over. We're being given responsibility. We need to be mature and run with it."
Some of the differences are generational. Not everyone has embraced the new politics, especially the rapid promotion of elements of the 2010 intake. "It's insane. They should refuse," says one veteran of the 1992 election, on hearing of the junior shadow ministerial appointments. Most members of Generation Ed report few problems. "It's working pretty well," says the shadow culture minister Gloria del Piero. "People have been helpful and supportive. After the election defeat there's a real sense of everyone pulling together."
However, anxiety runs deep. Ed Miliband's supporters claim to have been shocked by the hostility they received from Labour officials in the wake of his election victory. Ninety per cent of party staffers, whose votes were treated like a mini constituency, voted for David Miliband. "It was unbelievable," says one campaign worker, "they acted like we had no right to be there. Ed's going to have to clean house."
In order to help begin that process, Ed Miliband's team are reaching beyond the party. Caroline Badley, who masterminded Gisela Stuart's surprise victory in Birmingham Edgbaston, Nick Lowles, who leads Hope Not Hate's successful push against the BNP, and London Citizens, who worked closely with David Miliband's campaign, have all been asked to contribute to a campaigning template for the new leadership team. But again, tensions are surfacing.
London Citizens' aggressive organising model, built on church-based community activism, has met with resistance. "These guys burst in, hijack a meeting, demand everyone signs up to their agenda and talk down anyone who disagrees," says one veteran campaigner. A conference fringe meeting degenerated into rancour after London Citizens activists repeatedly called on Ed Miliband to endorse their organisational model and refused to let him leave the meeting until he had done so.
Maurice Glassman, the academic and godfather of British community organising, and someone so well connected that he worked simultaneously on both Ed and David Miliband's leadership campaigns, says people have to be open to a new way of working. "You cannot overstate the extent to which Labour has lost the ability to organise," he tells me. "Yes, we can mobilise. Get out the vote at elections. But then, once the election is over, it's all left to deflate like an old balloon."
Another reform Ed Miliband is considering is the introduction of a directly elected party chair. Again, the driving force behind the proposal is Compass. "The top priority for us and for the new leader must be party reform," says Compass's general secretary, Gavin Hayes. "We need a root-and-branch review of all areas of Labour's structure."
Party chair is the big prize. "This person will be the commander-in-chief of the grassroots, elected by individual members," Hayes says. "Ed isn't going to have time to be worrying about the nuts and bolts of party organisation. That's why we need this role."
But the putative commander-in-chief faces opposition from an influential quarter. "The unions won't go for it," says one source. "It'll be seen as a Trojan horse. If you get one member, one vote for an elected party chair, why not leader? In the unions' eyes, once you lose the electoral college, that's the link broken."
During the leadership election, David Miliband told Jon Cruddas, the influential Labour MP for Dagenham, that he would introduce a party chair but only if it was by the election of individual members. Cruddas warned against this but agreed to approach the union general secretaries. They were firm in their opposition. It was a non-starter. Cruddas told Miliband that even if he, Miliband, won, he'd refuse to stand.
What of the Lost Leader himself? Is he committed to uniting behind his younger brother, who many believe betrayed him. In the immediate aftermath of the election, there was no hiding his bitterness. "He was in a dark place," says one friend. "It was very difficult for him to take." But he has apparently returned from holiday in Italy reinvigorated. "Had he fought and lost, that would have been it," says a senior former campaign aide. "But the way he sees it now is that he won the party, won the MPs and won a decent share of the unions, even with their machine against him. He's not just going to walk away."
Another former aide concurs: "When I heard he'd put out that statement about building an organising base and doing some policy thinking, I didn't think anything about it. Then I went back and had another look. Policy development in education, environment and foreign affairs. His own activist model. Campaigning in the Scottish, Welsh and local elections. It was a pretty clear statement of intent."
“David's rediscovered his excitement in politics," says Lisa Tremble, his former communications director. "He's looking forward to the new challenges. He's not going anywhere."
The consensus of those close to David Miliband is that he does not believe the election defeat fully extinguished his chances of becoming Labour leader one day. He sees himself as the "under the bus" candidate, were political misfortune to befall his brother. They insist, however, that there are no plans to nudge Ed towards the curb.
Within the wider Blairite circle, there is residual sympathy for the manner in which David Miliband fought and lost his campaign. There is also a feeling among some that he needs to accept reality. "I don't think any of the candidates who lost last time around are ever going to be leader," says one former Downing Street adviser. "Over the short term there isn't going to be a vacancy. Medium to longer term, I think Jim Murphy is our standard bearer, with Alan Johnson riding shotgun."
Perhaps. But the one certainty is there are no longer any certainties. Everything is in flux. John Prescott's "plates" are shifting once again. When David Miliband made his plea for unity, it was undoubtedly sincere. But everyone seeks unity. The Blairite outriders. The Ballsites. The Milibites. The problem is not a desire for unity; the problem is lack of agreement on what to unite around. "Frankly, I wish Ed Miliband hadn't run," says one MP. "We should have had a straight battle between David and Ed Balls. One final reckoning. A fight to the death. Then the Blair/Brown struggle would have been resolved once and for all."
As it is, there is no resolution. Most people have not yet picked sides. They don't want to. They are the Ednostics, watching and waiting to see how their new leader faces up to the trials ahead of him. That represents an opportunity for Ed Miliband. But also a threat. There is some space. But also a void. If he doesn't fill it, others will. "He's got a window [of opportunity]," says one MP. "But he's got to use it. It's not going to be open for ever."
The tents have been erected, the campfires lit. They are either shining a light on a new political community or pinpointing the location of a series of enemy encampments. One MP's assessment is stark: "We're either on the threshold of the new politics or we're on the brink of a civil war."
No more briefings. No more cliques. No more factions.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut