Labour’s faerie weekend

by Rob Marchant

It was a strange Midsummer Night’s Dream weekend. There seemed to be dark shadows of plots in every corner. The “Balls papers” of leaked memos reminded us that no-one plots quite like the Brownites; the ghost of David Miliband’s never-uttered leadership acceptance speech was rather unhelpfully leaked to the press, neatly exhuming the Miliband-fratricide stories. And the Labour body politic ended up starting the week a little jittery.

So jittery, in fact, that by Tuesday, and after Ed Miliband had made rather a good fist of pulling it all back together, our esteemed Uncut columnist, Dan Hodges, was still being accused of disloyalty for complimenting the party leader (work that one out if you will). I put it down to the faeries.

But through all this night gloom, we started to see some solid rays of realism gleaming through, in Ed’s Monday speech to the Coin Street neighbourhood centre in London. He even managed, with some success, to put down Sky’s John Craig for asking stupid questions.

Admittedly, Ed may have sent out a slightly dodgy, populist message on executive pay, on which he will probably struggle in practice to find a workable policy. But that moot point nevertheless acted both to bolster the overall message of being fair across society from top to bottom, and as a fig-leaf for his most controversial message, that of cracking down on benefit fraud. Interestingly, as the Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow observed, it is the exact same fairness-top-to-bottom idea which had appeared in his brother’s leaked speech at the weekend. To cap it all, and throw the policy wonks a bone, he has suggested the reintroduction of the concept of contribution to welfare, a principle which may yet yield a solid and workable policy distinct from the Tories. More than just a good day for Ed, then: many are suggesting that it is the start of a real change of direction.

But perhaps the most telling of the signals of perceived change of attitude almost passed unnoticed in all of this. The Durham miners’ gala, during the leadership election, found David Miliband making the naïve error of thinking that his predecessors had made unnecessary enemies by eschewing the miners’ gala during the previous sixteen years. And Ed Miliband repeated the same, on the same day as his never-to-be-forgotten appearance at the March 26 demo. Ah, the arrogance of youth: but both Milibands made a wrong call.

Blair and Brown were experienced enough to know the Gala would be a media disaster for them. So, not wanting to repeat the exquisite train-wreck of that self-same March demo, where Ed was filmed speaking against a backdrop of union regalia with a split-screen to marchers smashing windows in Oxford Street, he decided on Tuesday that compounding this image by attending – especially after a long absence and given union hegemony in party funding – may not be all that helpful to his bid to be prime-minister-in-waiting.

Thank. God. For. That.

No, we should not “worship at the altar of spin” or become obsessed by media froth. But this? This is basic. Avoiding media disasters – is essential to, well, not coming across as an amateur. Sorry, but it is. And for those who think this insulting to unions, get real. Get the pictures wrong, and you think the story will be our policy? Do me a favour.

So, all in all, should we be pleased? Yes, without a doubt. What was of overriding importance was that, on welfare, Ed finally showed that he is prepared to challenge conventional wisdom in his own party (sorry, but that modest statement on levels of immigration, coming after Cameron’s speech on the subject, doesn’t count).

The words “my party must change”, uttered to the sound of light-bulbs going on in right-thinking households all over the country, are indescribably important. He now just needs to repeat them about a hundred times in every speech, on every platform.

A ray of sunlight seems to have made its way through the crazy, mixed-up nocturnal dream we have been living. But dawn has not yet broken.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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10 Responses to “Labour’s faerie weekend”

  1. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    I’m not convinced this week was anywhere near that important.

    Despite much media sniping, polling hasn’t shown any major changes in the past week or so. This suggests to me that people didn’t engage with it, most likely because Miliband is low profile and he hadn’t done anything sufficiently terrible or out of the ordinary to attract people’s attention.

    And I’m not convinced that a speech saying we need to be tough on those ripping off the system is out of the ordinary, either, so the chances that that will be the big breakthrough are limited.

    Whilst it would no doubt be better if our leader was better known and his actions made a real impact on popular opinion, I don’t see any evidence to that effect yet.

  2. JB says:

    A quick question to Rob. How many doors has he knocked on since the General Election?

  3. Rob Marchant says:

    @Edward: it may or not end up being important, depending on what happens next. But the issue is not the day-to-day fluctuations in media, polling or popular reaction, but changes in the underlying trend of direction and message. The latter is what we seem to be seeing.

    By the way, I wouldn’t expect to see changes polling or other “evidence” at all (certainly not since Monday – that’s impossible) – it’s way too early for that. If the strategy works, you will see a gradual shift.

    @JB I’m not going to get into “holier-than-thou bingo” with you.

  4. james says:

    He said: “companies should publish the ratio of the pay of its top earner compared to its average employee”. And “we also need to recognise – as many great companies do – that firms are accountable to their workers as well as their shareholders”.

    The first part of this could be a policy pursued by the current Business Secretary Vince Cable. The second part would just involve a reform of company law.

  5. Henrik says:

    @james: I’m not sure how you’d characterise a fundamental change in the spirit of corporate legistlation such as you suggest as “just… a reform of company law”. Quite apart from the practical element – unless you have in mind a representation of the workforce on the Board, which is common practice elsewhere in the EU – this fundamentally changes the value of an investment in a given corporate entity and will make investors profoundly nervous, in particular if they see unschooled and unqualified workforces driving enterprises for their own, rather than shareholders’ and customers’ advantage. Bad idea, on pragmatic and practical terms, never mind ideology.

  6. Rob Marchant says:

    @James: I think both are ok. As long as we don’t try and physically cap earnings, which wouldn’t work, some “soft” controls like this to get things in the right ball-park and prevent outlandish differences are good. My real concerns are more about the distortion this makes to the effective functioning of company structures and protecting the lower-paid than vague arguments about “fairness” of executive pay, but that’s probably a quibble.

  7. Rob Marchant says:

    @Henrik, I think you’ve answered your own question there – why can’t we have board representation as they do in other European countries? It might, shock horror, make for better management decisions, as well as nipping potential industrial relations problems in the bud.

    As you may know from my writings, I’m hardly a rabid trade unionist radical, but that kind of modest solution makes sense. I don’t think it’s necessary to go to the German, three-way negotiations level to allow a voice for employees.

  8. Henrik says:

    @Rob: I wouldn’t disagree, have seen that work well in Germany and Denmark, my issue is with ‘accountability’ – this might have been a poor choice of word, but it would tend to suggest to literally-minded folk like me some sort of veto power or authority over the company’s management. That’s a good route to Volkseigene Betriebe.

  9. james says:

    @Henrik: I meant that as a policy commitment it would merely involve the party advocating a simple legislative change aimed at improving corporate governance – of course it would be a break with the tradition in the UK. As for the word “accountability” I took this to mean merely a process by which an account would be given, and the obvious means of achieving this would be through the kinds of representation which exist elsewhere in Europe.

  10. Henrik says:

    @Rob and James: fair enough, we seem to be in violent agreement, then. Darn, does this mean I get drummed out of the Tory sock puppet club?

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