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  1. Election 2024
21 October 2015

Good luck, Seumas Milne: here’s what I wish they’d told me when I took the job

Good luck, enjoy it - and don’t let the monkeys in the cheap seats throw peanuts at you.

By John McTernan

Dear Seumas,

First things first, congratulations – you have one of the great jobs in politics. When you believe in something there is nothing better than trying to steer it to success. You are already experiencing one of the great paradoxes of your position – you have lost your voice. Yesterday you could write, say, tweet whatever you wanted – you were Chairman, Chief Executive and sole employee of Seumas Milne Enterprises. Today, you are a staffer – a man who lives in the shadows. As someone who has written well and controversially on many things there will be many of your words thrown at you. You will be mocked, maligned and misrepresented – and not only must you not answer back, you can’t, you simply can’t. Don’t be drawn into a fight, however tempting – and it is, the aim is to make you angry. And anger fogs the mind, preventing you from doing what you have to do – be strategic.

That is the central part of your job as Director of Strategy and Communications. You are not a spinner or a press secretary – you employ them and you should not do their jobs for them and if the staff aren’t up to it then replace them rather than supplant or substitute for them. There are many staff who can get you to next Tuesday and then on to the Sunday after and so on. Your job is to get to May 2020 with a proposition for the country – and the truth is you don’t have much time. This is not that you only have one chance to make a first impression. Actions and events make and remake reputation repeatedly – just look at George Osborne’s regular journey from hero to zero and back again. The point is one that David Plouffe made after the first Obama victory – you inevitably always have limited resources. So, every day, every staff hour, every speech, every leaflet, every pound spent off strategy is irretrievably wasted.

Given that strategy is one of the most misused terms in politics it is worth remembering another of Plouffe’s sayings – ‘there is a narrow path to victory’. Strategy is discerning that path, discipline is sticking to it. Everything hangs on getting that right. Start with the facts. Politics is a Maslowian hierarchy – the base is security, the middle is delivery (or competence) and at the top is aspiration – the kind of country and society they want to live. If you cannot convince on security – economic, homeland, national, environmental – then you aren’t heard on public services. If you are not trusted on delivery of health and education then it does not matter what your vision of the good society is – however wonderful. Too often the left starts with collective aspiration and all the great things we can do, forgetting the scaffolding. Map where Labour is and where the Tories are. Be honest – whole sight, or all the rest is desolation. And then plan how to wrest topics from the Tories one by one, and own and occupy them for Labour. A fight over hospital deficits is about competence not about privatisation – the former disconfirms and damages the overall Tory brand, the latter just makes Labour feel good. Cuts to tax credits and job losses in steel are about insecurity domestically and globally. Always attach the stories, messages and actions of the day

Get the polling done. The party has no better pollster than James Morris. Use him, and listen to him. Do not for one moment believe in what you hope for. And never neglect to think like a Tory – if your polling is right, and if it’s not why are you paying for it, then Cameron and Osborne are seeing similar figures. Harold Wilson would always interrupt Bob Worcester’s polling presentations with the simple question – ‘What will the Tories do with this?’ Plans disintegrate on contact with the enemy because they have plans of their own. Think through what they will be doing and plan to block or disrupt it. But do not for one moment believe in what you hope for. Every vote has to be fought for and won and re-won. As the Labour Party Organisation Department used to say – the victory of ideals must be organised.

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Get planning. A good strategy is not a guarantee of victory but having none ensures defeat. Start with the end-point – the election date – and plan backwards. The main political events of the next five years are almost entirely predictable – they have a merciless rhythm. Plot a path through them. Take advice widely, there are good ideas out there. But once a course is set stick to it – don’t let the monkeys in the cheap seats throw peanuts at you.

Above all, enjoy it. You’ll never be bored.

Yours in solidarity,


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