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.
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.