by Michael Dugher
Only the Labour Party, on attracting 40,000 new members and going five-points ahead in the opinion polls – for the first time in what felt like living memory – could be written up as being in real difficulty. The (mainly Conservative-supporting) newspapers have talked of “growing rumblings” about the Labour leadership and “mounting criticisms”. Ed Miliband’s speech to the national policy forum was described by yesterday’s Sunday papers as a “fightback”’ and a “relaunch”, and even a move “to avert a leadership crisis”, according to the Mail on Sunday.
But we can’t just blame the journalists for this mischief. They are just filing copy, filling space in the paper, doing what they are paid to do. Too often, the negative stories are the result of “friendly fire” from our own side – ill-judged remarks (if you are feeling forgiving), “public diplomacy” (if you are feeling cynical). Or they come from the whingeing briefings and bar-room gossip that are all part of the trade.
Commentators, too, have been quick to say where we are going wrong. Our own Dan Hodges, contributing editor of Labour Uncut, is usually a saint of reason. He offers both insight and wisdom. But his recent piece in the New Statesman that Labour is on the brink of a “new civil war” was as wild as the jungle. Some stories are written to generate more stories, and this Hodges piece unfortunately read as such.
The truth is that Labour is remarkably united by historic standards. The leadership election was not some sort of ideological fight to the death like previous contests. Two brothers telling fascinated audiences about how much they loved each other, before debating the precise nuances of our approach to higher education funding, was not exactly Healey versus Benn. There were not the big fundamental policy divides that have dominated Labour in past decades.
All the candidates brought something enduring to the debate. David Miliband said that Labour needed to be a real community-based movement again, and he warned that the party needed to show humility in defeat if we are to meet the huge task of winning back power at the next election. Ed Balls said that Labour had to face up to anxieties about immigration; he was the first to call for tuition fees to be replaced by a graduate tax; and his speech to Bloomberg, arguing that Labour needed to take on the “growth-deniers” in the Tory-Lib Dem government, should be read again and again. Andy Burnham’s comments that the party had become too “London-centric”, and his fury about the endless TB-GB rows and personality feuds that damaged Labour in the past, struck a chord.
Most of the party have moved on from the leadership election. Those who haven’t, need to do so quickly. Ed Miliband told the first meeting of the Parliamentary party at the conference in Manchester that he did not care which way people had voted in the leadership election. Bizarrely, the same people who would mourn the apparent demise of collective decision-making, or lambast a “bunker” approach to the leadership, have criticised Ed for his collegiate approach to working with colleagues, saying it is not “strong” leadership. Humility, listening and reconnecting to the public are derided as “following”, not leading. We are quick as a party to defend the importance of paternity leave, yet a Labour leader who takes a few days off to change nappies and watch cbeebies at four o’clock in the morning is said to be “not stepping up to the plate”. Ridiculous.
Ed Miliband has repeatedly set out his strategy to MPs and to the party: we must be an effective and responsible opposition; we must show humility after our worst election performance in nearly a century; and we must begin to develop a credible and clear alternative to the Tory-Lib Dem government. All of this will take time and we are getting on with it, as the recently announced policy reviews demonstrate.
It is sensible to take some time to get our forward offer for 2015 right. As Will Straw has written: “The noisy media and political class should not provoke Ed Miliband into hasty moves on policy and party reform”. Neither should we be rattled by fidgety and inpatient voices on our own side.
Reading Peter Mandelson’s book, I was struck that, in the immediate aftermath of the 1992 defeat, the then newly-appointed shadow chancellor Gordon Brown understood that the economy was too uncertain, and that politically it was far too unwise, to be overly prescriptive about our tax and spending policies so far away from an election. We do need to develop a strong alternative today, particularly on the economy, but that does not mean accepting George Osborne’s kind invitation to produce some sort of “shadow CSR”.
Neither can we afford to sit around and wait for the government to lose the next election. We have to set out our alternative approach, our values and our instincts in relation to the big issues. Responsible opposition does mean supporting the government when they get it right or when they are acting in the national interest. But it also means knocking seven bells out of the them at every appropriate opportunity.
Leadership is a collective responsibility. All of us are getting used to opposition. It may, on first impression, seem easier than government. You are not responsible and accountable for every event, every crisis and every cock-up that happens. If a civil servant leaves a computer disc on a train, it’s the government which must answer, not the opposition. We are not subject to the same scrutiny – or even the same interest – as the government of the day.
But opposition is hard work. You do not have an army of civil servants and press officers. You do not have the levers to pull or the photo-opps to attend. You rarely make the news. Rather, in opposition, you have to “get into” the news – and the bar is set much higher as to what constitutes a story. A good opposition needs the agility quickly to seize and capitalise on the government’s mistakes. You need the intellectual and political ability to know where your opponent’s weaknesses are, the emotional intelligence and communication skills to ensure that your message reaches and resonates with the public, and the media-savvy to know where a story is going and how to get into it or even ahead of it. This is much easier said than done. Recently, Douglas Alexander on welfare reform and John Healey on the threats to the NHS are case studies in how it should be done.
So if opposition is itself hard work, and if the road to the next election is likely to be a long one, investing our energies into anything other than being an effective opposition that listens to the public and develops an alternative is a luxury Labour cannot afford. We must not fall into the media and Conservative trap that we are in some sort of “leadership crisis”. We are not. The only crisis was losing the last general election. Getting rid of this government will be no easy task and it will require all our united efforts. The country will never forgive us if we are provoked into a self-indulgent row amongst ourselves.
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and a shadow defence minister.