Guru boogie: who will be godhead to Ed?

by Dan Hodges

Earlier this week, I dined with an old comrade. As it does, our conversation drifted to gurus.

“Alastair Campbell. Great communications guru”.

“No. Swore too much. Gurus don’t swear. They hardly even speak. They emit”.

“Peter Mandelson. He was a proper guru”.

“Not a guru. A svengali. There’s a difference”.

“What is it?”.

“Not sure exactly. But there is”.

“OK, got a real one. Gramsci”.

“The guy who used to  work for Harriet?”.

“No. The Gramsci. Antonio Gramsci”.

“Oh that Gramsci. Yeah. The Ledg. Dead. Foreign. Funny little glasses. Ticks all the boxes”.

A guru. Wanna make it in politics, Mack? Gotta get yourself a guru. The true guru is part university lecturer, part parent, part deity. A  strange creature. Ill defined, he occupies a curious netherworld somewhere between, or rather above, policy, communication and organisation.

There are some who feel a guru is just what Ed Miliband lacks. A big thinker. A macro strategist. A blue skies soaring, clear red water surfing, intellectual black belt.

It’s an open secret in Westminster that the new leader is looking to expand his core team. A search is underway for another heavyweight figure to work alongside his well-respected chief of staff, Lucy Powell. Polly Billington has been placed in charge of pmq briefings. Katie Myler, who was acting as Ed’s official spokeswoman, is departing for the world of PR.

The lobby is pushing for another front line press supremo, ideally from within its ranks. But communications chief, Stewart Wood, is reported to be concerned that too many cooks could spoil the briefing. “We know we need to get help for the kids”, said one shadow cabinet member, “It’s going to be sorted”.

But what of the guru? Who is to be godhead to Ed?

Tony Blair had more gurus than you could shake a stick at. Derry Irvine, his former pupil master, was one. Though, in truth, he was more a mentor than a proper guru. Young men have mentors. They fit in between your Raleigh Chopper and your first truly disastrous relationship.

Professor Anthony Giddens was another. He was a copper-bottomed, honest to goodness guru. Founder of the third way. “Structures must be conceptualized not only as constraints upon human agency, but also as enablers”, he argued. It was Blair’s passionate defence of this philosophy one rainy Thursday night down the Trimdon Working Men’s club that propelled him onto the road to power.

A cursory glance at Google brought up no fewer than 12 Blair gurus in the first two pages. Robert Cooper, Tony Blair’s foreign policy guru. He apparently argued for “a new form of imperialism, based not on territory but on western values such as human rights, democracy and Coca-Cola”. Peter Thompson, described eclectically as, “the sherry-drinking priest”, or “a preacher turned teacher, turned cattle rancher”.

Our former prime minister also had a polling guru, a PR guru (obviously), several economic gurus, a style guru, a lifestyle guru – not to be confused with his health guru – and even a catering guru.

So terrified were the Tories of being outgurud that in 1996 David Willets set up a special “guru hit squad” to take them out. According to the Independent, who infiltrated this anti-guru delta force, “Having attacked Tony Blair’s wife and his cardigan, Conservative critics are now targeting the Labour leader’s mind”.  Their tactics would be ruthless, but sophisticated. “The cardigan Tony Blair wore in his Islington garden for the photograph on the front page of the Independent drew criticism. Mr Willetts now plans to take apart the philosophy underpinning “Blairism”.

This may seem comic now. But at the time it was deadly serious. One of the characteristics of New Labour was that as it moved further and further away from ideological politics, so it precipitated a desperate scramble to anchor the party within some new philosophical narrative.

The result was a party that fell prey to every socio-economic snake oil salesman whose wagon happened to be passing through. And boy, were we buying what they were selling. The third way. Triangulation. Communitarianism. The big conversation.

I remember nearly coming to blows with one special advisor who was adamant that his man, not Tony Blair, had first discovered the political gold dust that was communitarianism. “It’s not his, it’s ours”, he screamed.

Of course, we now have a new leader. And the gurus are circling once again.

One is Maurice Glasman. In fairness to Glasman, he doesn’t swim with the rest of the guri. “Family, small businesses, defending the local pub and patriotism”, are the staples of his Blue Labour prospectus. Credited with deploying his organisational acumen in successful defence of 25 marginal seats in the election, Glasman is such a consummate operator that he worked simultaneously on both Ed and David Miliband’s leadership campaigns.

There is green guru, David Mackay. Recruited by Ed Miliband to be his climate change advisor in government, he horrified the environmental community by stating candidly that turning off your mobile phone charger wont make the slightest difference to the fight against global warming.

And then there is Zygmunt Bauman. Bauman is not just any old guru. He is a super-guru, straight from central casting. Elderly. Eastern European. With a name David Willett’s couldn’t even pronounce, never mind besmirch. According to the Guardian, Bauman’s philosophy is based on the belief that “in place of totalitarian rule, western society looks to scare and entice by manufacturing public panics and seducing people with shopping”.

Compass director, Neal Lawson, himself something of a neo-guru, and visitor to Ed Miliband’s Portcullis House strategy briefings, points to Ed Miliband’s conference speech with pride. “There were a lot of echoes of Bauman’s work in that speech. I know, because compass has been influencing Ed [Miliband] with similar ideas and we got them from Bauman”.

Glasman, Bauman and Mackay. They may sound like a late nineteen fifties skiffle band, but they could well form the intellectual engine room of the new generation.

Personally, though, I find it hard to relate to the gurus. They occupy too lofty a plane. I prefer the company of the fixers, the spinners, the organisers, the mobilisers. The intoxicating whiff of political axle grease, rather than the musty security of the guru’s high chambers.

Ed may well need his gurus. But as experience has taught us, when fashion and faddism move on, will his gurus really need him?

He should identify the stickers. Who will stand by him when the going is tough. Guides, not tourists. Political trackers, who have passed this way before.

I know just the man. Come back Derek Draper. All is forgiven.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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4 Responses to “Guru boogie: who will be godhead to Ed?”

  1. Alex Ross says:

    You had me until Derek.

  2. Sheks says:

    Dan, you are so out of touch with the feelings of the party.

    A few days ago you were using contorted logic to try and justify your belief that Phil Woolas should remain a Labour MP. Now you are advocating the return of Derek Draper!!!

    Words fail me.

  3. Dan Hodges says:


    You’re right.

    I feel strangely disconnected from the humour and irony that characterises so much centre-left discourse.


  4. steve says:

    Its about time the curtains where drawn back and the real puppet masters are exposed behind Labour . Maurice Glassman , an effate pseudo academic , crawling out of Zionist heavy duty bookishness and dowdy cordurouy living ‘ above the shop ‘ in more ways than one. Is the destiny ofa once great party now in the hands of the coffee and quiche brigade ?
    Ive never met the bugger or heard of him til now but i can already see him drawling on his rollies and gesticulting with a fag in his fingers in poncy art galleries. Who the fuck thought it appropriste to enoble him ? He looks like a poseur that would mistake mushy peas for guacamole and revells being clothed in the garb of faux academic posts in the former polytechnics .

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