At some point the redundancy of classifying Labour MPs into “Blairites” and “Brownites” will be complete. That point is not now, judging by much of the reaction to Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet reshuffle. The demotions of Liam Byrne, Jim Murphy and Stephen Twigg – all usually characterised as devotees of the Tonyist creed – has been seized by Conservatives as yet more proof that the opposition has taken leave of its centrist senses.
The counter-argument from Miliband’s allies is that Blair acolytes have been promoted too. Charlie Falconer has been drafted in as a senior advisor. Tristram Hunt is the new shadow education secretary (“not exactly Len McCluskey’s idea of the best person for that job,” as one very senior party figure said to me last night). Douglas Alexander has the role of chairing Labour’s election campaign – and he ran David Miliband’s leadership campaign.
But then, if you want to be all purist about political genealogy, you could say that Alexander is really a Brownite who wandered only half-way down the road to Blairite perdition/virtuous Damascene conversion (delete according to factional inclinations) by backing the ill-starred older brother in 2010.
One principal motive behind the reshuffle is to accelerate the process of re-branding Labour as neither old nor new; neither Blair nor Brown – but wholly Milibandist. A bunch of MPs from the 2010 parliamentary intake have been promoted. They now make up nearly a third of the shadow cabinet. That puts important jobs in the hands of people who can plausibly claim to be untainted by the feuds of the last administration. That is no small advantage.
The fact that Labour’s haggard slump to defeat in 2010 is so recent poses problems for Miliband both in terms of voter perception and party management. It makes it hard for him to manoeuvre in any direction without it being interpreted through the prism of ancient vendetta. Never mind left or right, the problem has been going forwards when so much media coverage – and so many of the personal dynamics around the shadow cabinet table – have been coloured by brooding recollections of who briefed against whom one rainy Wednesday afternoon in 2003. The publication of memoirs by former Brown media hit man Damian McBride on the eve of the Labour conference only reinforced the impression that some new cast members were required on stage. As one beneficiary of yesterday’s reshuffle put it, the important thing was to have more people who could say, when asked about the stories in that book, “Damian McWho?” In other words, Miliband needs more people around who can claim to be focused on the future not the past – and look as if they mean it. That, at least, is the ambition. It hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that the most senior figures from Brown’s days in Downing Street keep their seats at Labour’s top table. Some faces from the past are more past-it than others, apparently.
One appointment that captures the complex nature of Miliband’s motives is the decision to put Rachel Reeves in charge of the work and pensions brief. Reeves has spent the last couple of years pondering the fiscal challenge that Labour faces in the next parliament if it wins an election. As recently as last month she was resisting the idea of making a pre-conference commitment to scrap the coalition’s “bedroom tax” on the grounds that the Tories would fling it back at the opposition as proof of spending laxity. By contrast, Byrne was the one pushing for the bedroom tax to be opposed, partly because he felt that demoralised activists urgently needed something to cheer them up. That doesn’t quite support the claim that an axe-wielding Blairite ultra has been ditched to carve out space for lefty lurches.
The big problem with Byrne wasn’t exactly his views. It was his image as the outrider for the party’s furthest right flank that made it hard for large sections of the party to swallow the message that welfare reform and benefit cuts are unavoidable. The messenger was contaminating the message for people whose consent was vital for keeping Miliband’s show on the road. I doubt we will see the opposition now suddenly promise to lavish more spending on social security. On the contrary, a central part of Reeves’s task will be to persuade voters that Labour can be trusted to manage the DWP budget prudently. But she might be able to do it in a way that doesn’t provoke cries of crypto-Tory treason from the grassroots.
Miliband doesn’t need to sack or demote “Blairites” to move left or distance himself from the New Labour legacy. The conventional reading of his leadership suggests he’s done a fair amount of that already. He does, however, want to get beyond the stage where his every action is subjected to a test of Blairism and found wanting by people who suppose that Blair had the only formula for delivering a Labour election victory. 2015 could never be a re-run of 2005 or 2001 or 1997. There must be another way.
Of course, the theoretical existence of such an alternative route to power doesn’t prove that Miliband has found it.