Charlie Whelan should holster his guns and let the posse ride on, says Dan Hodges

Two weeks ago Charlie Whelan savoured his greatest triumph. Unite’s pistol-packing political director strained every sinew and bicep of union muscle as Ed Miliband was carried triumphantly across the finishing line. The crowd roared. And at that point our hero was supposed to hang up his six shooters, saddle up his horse, and gallop into the sunset.

It didn’t happen that way. Instead, Charlie wheeled his steed, came barreling down main street, and started shooting up the town.

“Charlie Whelan: the puppet master who ‘won it for Ed’” – the Sunday Telegraph; “Charlie Whelan launches attack on biggest names in Labour party” – the Guardian; “I’m not going to go around crowing. But it was clear that the union vote turned out for Ed Miliband.” – the Times.

To many people, there’s no mystery to answer. “Charlie’s just being Charlie”, said one journalist, “what you get is what’s on the tin”. “It’s all about his book”, says another, “he just wants to sell more than Peter”.

Possibly. But according to friends, a book is by no means a certainty. He was planning to write one soon after his resignation from the treasury, but Gordon Brown and Ed Balls convinced him of the damage it could do to Gordon’s hopes of succeeding Blair. Gordon no longer has anything to lose. But Ed does.

Whatever you say about Charlie – and people have said plenty – no one has ever questioned his loyalty, or his commitment to Labour and the wider movement. Which makes his recent media forays even more counter-intuitive. Few have circled the political block as often as Charlie Whelan. He knows better than anyone the damage his “it was me wot won it” interventions are doing.

Charlie’s enemies – surprisingly, he has them – would argue that the past few weeks have been simply a manifestation of his base character. One former Westminster adviser reminded me that Chris Smith used to be a favored target of Charlie’s briefings. “Who the hell would beat up on Chris Smith? He did it because he could”. Chris himself once told me he’d complained personally to Tony Blair about the attacks, only for Blair to admit that he’d asked Gordon on three separate occasions to sack Charlie, without success.

I don’t buy the ‘Charlie just being Charlie’ line. Yes his actions may grant an insight into his character. But his character has always been more complex than popularly perceived. And there is definitely something human – above the political – about his recent display of hubris.

Charlie’s reaction to Ed Miliband’s victory can, in part, be traced back to the general election. It was an open secret at Westminster in the months running up to the campaign that he was lobbying intensively to be put in charge of Labour’s operation. With hindsight that may seem to have been an unrealistic proposition. But at the time a number of journalists had been told by different sources that Gordon had indeed promised Charlie the role. That the prize was taken away from him was bad enough. For it to be handed to, of all people, his nemesis, Peter Mandelson, rubbed salt into the wounds. And that the ultimate decision was taken by Gordon Brown, to whom he had given such loyal service, was the cruelest cut of all.

It is in that context that Charlie’s one-man victory parade should be viewed. His moment of triumph, (Charlie remains convinced that the 2010 election could have been won), had been taken from him. Snatching the laurels of victory from Ed Miliband and claiming them for his own may not be justifiable. But by the melodramatic standards of New Labour, it’s at least understandable.

There is, however, an important subtext to Charlie’s braggadocio. And in the long run it has the potential to do more damage to the party than reinforcing caricatures of trade union barons toying with their ‘Red Ed’ marionette.

It is clear from Charlie’s reaction that securing victory for Ed Miliband was less important than ensuring David Miliband’s defeat. “The main thing is we got David”, said one “union source” on the night of the leadership result.

Nor was he the only one to hold that view. For many “Ed supporters” the defeat of David Miliband was the imperative. Or rather, the defeat of New Labour was.

Charlie again on the root cause of Labour’s election defeat: “HQ was full of Blairites. Their heart wasn’t in it. They didn’t think they could win it, and they didn’t have any interest in Gordon. They were waiting to lose. All they were interested in was getting Miliband in. I was sickened”.

To Charlie, and to many others, the leadership election was a proxy war. To paraphrase Clausewitz, it represented the continuation of the Blair/Brown struggle by other means. And, in fairness, many Blairites viewed it the same way. Their anguish at the result a direct inversion of Charlie’s joy.

This is the problem for Ed Miliband. While he seeks to move the party forward, many, including his own supporters, are still defining his election by pointing to the past. That of itself creates a reaction, which then begets a new action, and so it goes on.

We have already seen the dangers. Alan Johnson’s appointment suddenly becomes a sop to the Blairites. Ed Balls’ and Yvette Cooper’s appointments are seen as a snub. Then everyone wakes up to headlines declaring, “Ed Miliband fluffs first big call with Alan Johnson appointment”.

It’s not just about a return to the in-fighting and factionalism of the past, though Labour’s new leader needs that like he needs a hole in the head. Charlie’s adventurism is corrupting the “Milibrand”. At the moment Generation Ed is very much a work in progress. It could come to be symbolic of a dynamic new leader, spearheading a youthful new team which has seized the political zeitgeist. Or it could become framed as the flawed vehicle of a novice politician incapable of taming the same warring tribes that ultimately doomed his predecessors.

Because there is much more at risk than basic party discipline or branding. Ed Miliband is not just a leader. He is the transmission belt between New Labour and the post-New Labour era. If he moves forward, and successfully re-crafts the party in his image, everyone wins. But if he falters we will all be losers, by again demonstrating an inability to escape our own past. And if he falters because those who clung to the faded flags of yesterday’s battles did not have the wit or wisdom to lay them down, then it is they who will pay the heaviest price. No Waterstone’s launch. Or Andrew Marr interview. Or international sinecure. Or off the record briefing will save their legacy. Left or Right. Blairite or Brownite. That will be their definitive act. And it will be as self-destructive as it will be self-indulgent.

Both sides must holster their guns. The war is over. Ed Miliband won the leadership election. David Miliband lost. Enough.

You’ve had your victory Charlie. You earned it. And you deserved it.

Now the time has come to ride on. And the rest of the posse should ride with you.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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One Response to “Charlie Whelan should holster his guns and let the posse ride on, says Dan Hodges”

  1. AnneJGP says:

    Excellent article, Dan.

    Reading this immediately after I’d looked at “Spinning banned – official” reinforced for me why “briefing against” is as poisonous as “spinning”.

    It’s one thing to “spin” as in “explain one’s point of view”. But as Lobbydog comments on the Spinning banned article, that is very different to ‘the “spinning” which gave the previous Labour government such a bad name … when a situation or policy is presented in a certain way that is incongruent with the complete truth, in a bid to make political gain.’

    That sort of spinning has been poisoning politics.

    Mr Whelan’s belief that he could have won the GE for Labour seems to me quite a credible one. He may not realise, though, that it would very likely have been a pyrrhic victory.

    As it was, Labour saved enough from the wreckage to be back on its feet in fairly short order and hopefully, the way things are going, the poison may be drained from the party without having destroyed it completely.

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