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  1. Politics
26 May 2011

Labour’s Norman Mailer is making the Tories edgy

Glasman’s work with Blue Labour leads Conservative strategists to identify three “risk” areas.

By Dan Hodges

It doesn’t even count as a tremor. More a vague and transient sense of unease. A tiny grey stain on David Cameron’s otherwise cloudless horizon.

The Tories are getting a bit nervous about Blue Labour.

Last week a meeting was held at No 10, chaired by the PM’s new director of strategy, Andrew Cooper. Among the items on the agenda was a discussion on how to respond to a Labour attack from the centre right in general, and an assault conducted under the Blue Labour banner in particular.

Whatever the debate within the Labour Party about how to interpret the local election results, the assessment from Conservative Central Office was succinct: “In Wales, the Midlands and the south we actually did better than we did at the election,” said an insider. “The one slight concern was our performance in the inner cities, but assuming the economy shows a gradual recovery the only question is whether we can get the seats we require for an overall majority.

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“Obviously we’re a long way out, but at the moment we’re on track.”

Aside from the local elections, a second reason for Tory confidence is the failure of Labour’s leader to cut through with the public. “Our private polling on [Ed] Miliband is terrible. The quantitative stuff is pretty bad, but when you dig down into the qualitative responses, he’s having a nightmare. As bad as some of our duff leaders from the past.”

On the alert

Despite this, Cooper has identified three “risk” areas. Two are self-inflicted problems: the NHS and crime. “The good thing about Andrew is he’s not part of the Cameron social circle,” said one CCO source. “He loves nothing better than telling the Prime Minister some home truths. And he’s told him that health and law and order have the potential to hurt us.”

The third area is Blue Labour. “No one’s panicking, but it would be wrong to say we’re relaxed about it. It’s clearly a potentially interesting agenda for Labour to pursue, and we’re going to need to keep an eye on it.”

At the moment the Tory plan is to play the man, not the Blue Labour ball.

“The response will be to separate Miliband from the strategy,” said a source. “Basically the approach won’t be to attack the agenda, but just to focus on Ed and say, ‘Look, you don’t really believe in this. You don’t actually mean it.’ “

This will be coupled with new Tory themes centring around “responsibility” and job creation.

“We’re not going to get stuck on just talking about cuts,” said a Tory source. “We’re going to develop a broader dialogue about what underpins the cuts agenda, and what the benefits of pursuing that strategy will actually be.”

Sacred cows

Labour, meanwhile, continues to circle Maurice Glasman’s contentious blueprint for renewal warily.

Glasman himself continues to court controversy, not least with a recent Times interview (£) in which he described David Miliband as, “totally unrelational. I used to meet him and it was as if he took off his head and put it on the table.”

“Maurice is the Labour Party’s Norman Mailer,” says an insider. “He smokes, he drinks, he swears and he slays sacred cows. That’s great, and we need a bit of a shake-up. But he has to tone it down. He’s new in town, and he needs to pay his respects to the village elders.”

Glasman, for his part, has acknowledged to friends that the explosion of interest in Blue Labour has caught him by surprise, and he will be looking to “diversify” his narrative.

Jonathan Rutherford, Jon Cruddas, James Purnell and Hazel Blears – who have all been involved in the development of Blue Labour – are expected to take a more prominent role over the next few months in developing and defining the agenda, and giving it greater political direction and focus.

“There have been a couple of mistakes,” said a Blue Labour insider. “Maurice accepts that. He can’t do all the heavy lifting on his own. Blue Labour isn’t about one individual, it’s about developing a serous programme for opposition and then government. That requires a collegiate approach.”

Trojan detachment

One person who will welcome this new approach is Ed Miliband. The party leader has been cautious of binding himself too closely to the Blue Labour pitch, partly because of his nervousness about the broader reaction of the party, and partly because other advisers, such as Neal Lawson, John Harris and Jon Trickett, have been hostile to the small “c” elements of Glasman’s ideas.

“There are two camps in Ed’s office,” said a source: “the Sun readers and the hummus munchers. The hummus munchers think Blue Labour is a New Labour Trojan horse.”

“Ed’s surrounded himself with a bunch of detached intellectuals who have no experience of working in the party or winning elections,” said another Labour insider. “Up until mid-morning last Wednesday, they were telling Ed to ignore the Clarke row at PMQs.

“It was only when it blew up on Radio 5 they realised they had no choice.”

This is the paradox of Blue Labour: it’s a programme that creates nervousness in the offices of both the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition. If Miliband harnesses it, it may yet provide the definition and momentum for which he is searching. If he fails, Andrew Cooper will be able to cross another item off his “to do” list.

Labour’s Norman Mailer must prove that tough guys can dance after all.