Into the Portakabin of confusion comes the risky Lord Glasman

by Atul Hatwal

The Labour party currently resembles a building site.

Shadow ministerial teams are laying the foundations for policy, in the main, independently of each other. Various consultations are asking party members “what’s to be built on the foundations”, quite separately from the ministerial teams.  And at the front of the site, operating out of the political equivalent of a Portakabin, Ed Miliband and the shadow cabinet are trying to hold the government to account.

Into this melee have come two recent arrivals. They bring hope of deliverance from the mud and confusion.

Sat in the Portakabin is the first: Baldberts. Not a character from the Shire or a sixth-former at Hogwarts, but a bionic communications director made from the parts of former journalists Tom Baldwin and Bob Roberts –  Ed Miliband has the technology.

At the moment, Baldberts’ focus is on the leader, improving the lines to take and sharpening his performance.

The early consensus is that it’s working. Ed Miliband was recently declared by PR week to have had his first victory with the VAT attack. Then there was last week’s result in Oldham East and Saddleworth.

For Baldberts, success brings respect and respect brings power within the party. Almost as important as Ed Miliband scoring hits is that Baldberts is seen to be the reason.

Baldberts will ultimately become the authority that vets and sets the line for the party.  Message, discipline and focus will be the watchwords if Labour is to cut through a hostile press to a sceptical electorate.

Outside, standing in the site mire, is the second newcomer: the recently ennobled Lord Maurice Glasman. A leading light in London citizens, not only is he a poster boy for community organising, Glasman is the author of a snappily-titled new ideology – “blue Labour”.

His creed of community action as a counter to the unfettered market and officious state has struck a chord with members.

In its own way, the Labour party is as sick of big government as true blue Thatcherites. Government is always an alienating experience for members of political parties, but particularly for Labour members. Barricaded behind civil servants and departmental programmes, ministers are distant lords. The party becomes less a movement and more a bureaucracy. A return to human-level politics offers hope and belief to the disillusioned.

It is early days in opposition, and at the moment, Baldberts and Glasman are in sync. The idea of talent joining the Labour party is still a novelty. But, policy and press have never been easy team mates.

The immediate reaction of most press people to new policy ideas is to roll their eyes. Their role is to frame a message that resonates with the public and gets votes.  Difficult proposals that tackle the big issues are fine, but policies without power are just pamphlets. Press people are in the business of securing power.

Policy people will shake their heads at the scanty shallowness of the press team. The obsessive dictates of message and media often fillet the substance from a policy. Power without policy is pointless.

Every leader of the opposition needs to strike the right balance between electability today and effectiveness in government tomorrow.

The war in Number 10 between Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson gives a window onto the potential shape of things to come.

But, for Labour, the situation is complicated by Maurice Glasman’s unique position.

Politicians and parties have always had their intellectual leaders, yet it has been at a distance. Normally they would be sympathetic academics, safely above the fray, existing on an ethereal university plane. If the ideology becomes inconvenient, it’s easy for the politician to move on.

Tony Blair rattled through communitarianism, stakeholding and the third way without any blow back. David Cameron has nodded to “red toryism”, but Phillip Blond remains on the outside.

These might be the failings of two leaders lacking true belief; but keeping their space has meant room for manoeuvre and greater control of their own destiny.

Maurice Glasman is different. He is a Labour peer and an acknowledged member of the leader’s inner circle.  He speaks with the trust of the man who ennobled him.  Journalists already take his words to be the thoughts of Ed Miliband.

But Glasman has only been engaged with the party for two years and the recent experience of putting outside talent in high profile political positions isn’t promising.

Gordon Brown dreamed of a government of all the talents, but ended up with unhappy, stubborn GOATs. Whether it was Digby Jones or Mark Malloch Brown, they couldn’t kick the habit of speaking their mind rather than giving the line.

Years of running organisations breeds certain types of behaviours. The alpha personalities required to make things happen thrive on being the boss.  Coming into politics and having to follow orders is rarely a happy experience for them.

The social entrepreneurial zeal which drove Maurice Glasman to grow London Citizens is a faith which doesn’t take no for an answer. Mistakes and ruffled feathers are the unavoidable by-products of getting things done. Scrutiny has been based on results not process.

Politics doesn’t work this way.

Media scrutiny of politics is almost entirely focused on process. It’s an intense, round-the-clock looking glass, magnifying the mechanics of how things are done rather than what is achieved – the reverse of what Glasman will have experienced in his past life.

It’s why communications directors in politics are as powerful as they are. There will come a point where Baldberts blocks a cherished policy initiative, and is supported by Ed Miliband. The question for Maurice Glasman is: how will he respond?

The alpha entrepreneur’s reaction is likely to be to keep pushing and pulling every lever available – including going around Baldberts to brief friendly journalists, maybe even speaking out publicly. It’s the change that matters.

In other sectors, this is the type of determination which marks out leaders. In politics it would spray “Labour split” stories across the pages and screens of the media.

When press and policy are balanced, the party leader can make an even judgement. The arrival of Baldberts and Glasman offers that balance.  The creative tension between them has the potential to shape Labour’s building site into a Grand Design.

But Glasman’s elevated position tips the scales. Ennoblement means that he is more than just an academic; he’s now a front rank Labour politician with his own media profile. His tanks are on Baldberts’ carefully manicured press lawn. When Maurice Glasman finds it difficult to adapt to the realities of political process, the flashpoint will be with Baldberts, but the cost will be Miliband’s. And ours.

Atul Hatwal has been both a press and policy adviser to organisations across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

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3 Responses to “Into the Portakabin of confusion comes the risky Lord Glasman”

  1. MG says:

    Maurice Glasman will be just fine. He’s the most exciting thinker to come near our party in years. I am thrilled at his appointment and can’t wait to see what he comes up with. Congratulations to Maurice and here’s to better times ahead for the party renewing its intellectual muscle.

  2. Rob Marchant says:

    Does MG stand for Maurice Glasman then? Just asking.

  3. How can you all be so bothered with this stuff? I’ts SO boring! Just all man up and stop arguing like children in a playground! Get out there and do a day’s work. PS I only found this post because I was looking for the word Portakabin.

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