Ed’s team: the argument for greybeards

by John McTernan

What does Ed most need? A double dip recession? No, the cost to our people would be so great that any political benefit would surely not be worth while. A catastrophic error on the part of the government? Well, first – it’s not in his hands. And, second, there are too many to choose from – benefit cuts, NHS reorganisation, the so-called strategic defence review (aircraft carriers without any aircraft), housing policy, the list just goes on.

No, he needs luck. Napoleon was right when he said that the most important quality he demanded from generals was that they were lucky. How do you get lucky? In the immortal words of Arnold Palmer, you practise. So, how does Ed practise for luck? He plans. And he staffs.

Staff. The most underestimated element of any political machine [disclosure: I am a recovering staffer]. But the flurry of speculation around the promotion of Stewart Wood and the move of Katy Myler back to the private sector speak to a truth. A good team is so often the difference between success and failure for politicians (as, in truth, for leaders in almost any setting.)

This is not an argument for an Alastair Campbell figure (as it is often expressed). I have already written about why that is wrong. Wrong for Ed, wrong politically and wrong in terms of the times in which we live. In the increasingly feminised 21st century, the alpha male is an anachronism (and something that does not exist outside the field of journalistic jargon.)

At one level, it is simply to say that the team who got you elected as leader may well not be the right ones to get you chosen as PM. Why not? Actually because they got you elected leader. They are the true believers. They bought Ed when everyone else said it was a done deal for David. They worked long, long hours – against the odds, as even they thought in private moments. They did everything Ed asked of them and more.

And there’s the rub. They did everything Ed asked. But, paradoxially, that virtue in campaign mode can be a vice when working for a leader. Why? Because the hardest, but one of the most useful, tasks loyal staff can perform is to say “No”. The entire system inside the party and outside is designed to invest absolute authority in the leader. One minute you’re a team player, next you are – or are expected to be – both talismanic star player and manager, a combination of Alex Ferguson and Eric Cantona.

But, unlike the papacy, assuming the leadership of a political party doesn’t confer infallibility. Someone needs to say, “remember, when you set up a review it always reports”; “don’t make promises in opposition you’ll regret in government [fox-hunting, FOI]”; “never, ever publish a shadow budget”.

And someone needs to be able to game events, to predict what response(s) any initiative will generate. (It remains one of the greatest weaknesses of the political class that they invariably believe that their ideas are so brilliant that they will strike their opponents dumb and will be welcomed with open arms by a grateful nation).

What does this mean? Any high-performing political organisation has a sprinkling of grizzled greybeards. Men and and women who have seen it all. The late, legendary Veronica Creighton is a supreme example in the Labour party. She would media train by-election candidates. Her first interview was always one-to-one. Entering the office she would place a file of papers on the desk and say “All the details are in there. Now tell me your side of the story and we can decide how to handle it”. Invariably the candidates confessed all their peccadilloes. The folder, of course, was always full of blank sheets of paper. What Ed needs now is a handful of such people to leaven the youth and energy that got him across the line. As PJ O’Rourke once said: age and guile beat youth and a good looking hair cut.

John McTernan was political secretary to Tony Blair.

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2 Responses to “Ed’s team: the argument for greybeards”

  1. Dj says:

    Re: the aircraft carriers. This really is not something that Labour should shout too much about: the last Government sent out Ark Royal with no planes (instead, it was used as a Landing Platform Helicopter). This followed on from their catastrophic decision to scrap the Sea Harrier and merge the RN and RAF Harriers.

    Then we had HMS Invincible; technically in ‘extended readiness’, when it had no engines or other equipment (http://www.portsmouth.co.uk/newshome/HMS-Invincible-is-dead-in.5407433.jp).

    Labour should not crow over the new carriers not having any aircraft – after all, the entire mess was their doing.

  2. Aaron D Highside says:

    Not Arnold Palmer. Gary Player: “The more you practice, the luckier you get”.

    Sloppy, lazy, typical.

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