Post conference blues: Three dangers that will turn a leadership drama into a crisis

by Atul Hatwal

So farewell then, Labour conference.

It’s done. The headlines were bad, the political management was poor and the top trending story for part of the last day was Ed Miliband’s denial that he is “weird“.

In amid the detritus of the retreat from conference, talking to folk leaving the security bubble, one apparent point of consensus was that Ed Miliband had definitively secured his grip on the leadership.

Andrew Sparrow even rated it the number one fact in his top ten list of things he learned about the Labour party at conference.


It’s true there is no cabal ready to mount a coup and there was no talk of imminent insurrection either in the bars or the fringes.

But appearances can be deceptive.

Conference has not given the leader the boost either within the party, or out in the country, that he needed. In the polls so far there’s been no bounce, not even the dead cat variety. In fact the fear in Liverpool was the reverse – that his ratings would slip slightly given the coverage of his big speech.

Which means that Ed Miliband’s political health might not be as robust as people think.

Three dangers that could have been minimised with a strong conference performance now assume a greater salience and mean that Miliband’s leadership is entering its most vulnerable phase.

First, there’s the final legacy of Gordon Brown; second, the consequences of re-shaping the shadow cabinet and third, but not least, the spectre of London’s mayoral election.

Across all of the memoirs and accounts of the final days of the last Labour government, one common truth shines through. Everyone who knew what was happening could see that however bad Gordon Brown’s leadership looked on the outside, it was a hundred times worse on the inside.

The hanging question that remains unanswered is why didn’t anyone do anything about it?

David Miliband and Alastair Darling met secretly in a farmhouse to talk about it. James Purnell resigned unilaterally. Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt circulated a letter when it was too late.

Despite their fears and insider knowledge of what was really happening in government, no one at the top table organised any concerted action in defence of the party and country’s best interest. No matter what they thought the consequences might have been, could things really be worse than they are now?

The final legacy of Gordon Brown within the Labour party will be to make the party more ruthless in dealing with leaders who do not measure up.

Many of those still in and around the top of the Labour party bear the guilt of not acting last time. Talking to some of them at conference, the best description of their reaction is rueful.

What is clear is that they know something should have been done. This collective experience and its consequences will lower the threshold for action next time.

If the shadow of the party’s over-indulgence of Gordon Brown’s failings sets a context, then its Ed Miliband’s own political next steps that will maximise the danger.

A reshuffle is coming. The key questions are what amount of blood will be spilt and how will the victims react?

Reshuffles are difficult balancing acts at the best of times, even if the leader is in total command of the party. When they have a tenuous grip, reshuffles can become more of a threat to his or her own survival than a positive statement of leadership.

If Ed Miliband wields the knife widely, he will create a ready-made cadre of leading malcontents, despatched to sit behind him on the back benches, sharpening knives of their own, waiting for the moment to plunge them into his back.

If Miliband acts sparingly, then it will likely be seen as a sign of weakness. It was no secret at conference that the view within his circle of advisers is that the shadow cabinet have underwhelmed this past year. The lukewarm support from several members of the shadow cabinet for their leader’s themes has also been noted.

For Ed Miliband to hold back from re-shaping the shadow cabinet in his own image, despite his views about under-performing colleagues, would be a big statement in itself.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. What is certain is that there will be fall-out which further challenges the leader’s authority.

A party less tolerant of the failings of its leaders and destabilised by internecine conflict from a reshuffle is a dangerous place for Ed Miliband.

But it’s the third of the three dangers which could turn a bad situation into a full-blown crisis.

Next May, London votes in its Mayoral election.  It should be a clear Labour win. London’s demographics have been moving Labour’s way for years and even in the depths of the 2010 general election result, Labour still managed to win in the capital.

But we’re going to lose.

Despite everything the government is doing, and his own inaction as Mayor, Boris Johnson is still polling eight points ahead of Ken Livingstone according to the latest YouGov surveys. Worst of all, one in five Labour supporters is going to back Boris.

There has been no stirring of life in Livingstone’s poll rating in months and no sign of anything which will shift this status quo. The candidates are well known by the public, as are their policy positions – what’s to change between now and May next year?

If and when Labour loses in London then there will be a meltdown within the party which will call into question the party’s leadership at all levels.

Two years into Ed Miliband’s leadership, if Labour cannot win the mayoralty in a Labour-leaning city which was one of the few places where the vote held up in 2010, what will be the chances at the general election across the country?

It’s when MPs begin to viscerally fear for their own seats, for their own job security, that leader’s fall. That will be the situation precipitated by defeat in London.

So as people arrive back home from conference and reacclimatise to normal life, the clock is ticking. Unless Ed Miliband can find an electoral boost to replace the inoculation a good conference would have given him, his political health will deteriorate faster in the coming months than the conventional wisdom suggests.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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10 Responses to “Post conference blues: Three dangers that will turn a leadership drama into a crisis”

  1. Ralph Baldwin says:

    This isn’t the Tory Party and who is to say who or what a great Leader is? Having a load of malcontents act upon their own egos and harming the party during an election camapaign is not something we should be encouraging. We have a problem with the generic Leadership (not just the Leader but those around him/her) in the Party, with nepotism and corruption, we need to examine this and limit it as it will generate problems for the future that can be mitigated and limited in the impact on the Parties chances for being a contender.

    The only reason you weaken democracy is if you have something to hide. And we need to have brave and authentic leaders not a cabal of the strange who speak their own language which the public do not relate to even if they understand the general theme.

  2. swatantra says:

    Maybe Ed can turn ‘weirdness into and advantage, something Michael Howard never managed but Peter Mandelson did. Ed’s makeover merchants should be working hard on that one.
    London is saddled wit Ken and so will have to make the best of it. Thats why were should beintrodcing strict limits on te terms of office these egotists can hold otherwise its difficult to prise them out. 7 years is about enough one can take of most leaders,then its time for the Public to move on.

  3. Nick says:

    with Livingstone its easy to see why. He wants to cut fares using an accounting trick. Not everyone uses the tube or bus, but all people are affected by his tax rises.

  4. paul barker says:

    Surely most Labour activists have already factored in losing in London ? If not, wouldnt it make more sense to remove Ken ? Ed M had nothing to do with Kens selection, why blame him for it ?
    When voters say Ed is “weird, out of touch” etc they are really talking about Labour as a Party. Changing Leaders would be missing the point.

  5. donpaskini says:

    Oh dear god.

    “Despite everything the government is doing, and his own inaction as Mayor, Boris Johnson is still polling eight points ahead of Ken Livingstone according to the latest YouGov surveys. Worst of all, one in five Labour supporters is going to back Boris.

    There has been no stirring of life in Livingstone’s poll rating in months”

    That’s because there haven’t been any polls of the London mayoral election in months. The “latest YouGov survey” you mention is from June. It is the only poll, out of three conducted this year, which shows Boris in the lead – the other two had Ken narrowly ahead. That’s the evidence from which you conclude that we are definitely going to lose.

    “no one at the top table organised any concerted action in defence of the party and country’s best interest. No matter what they thought the consequences might have been [of getting rid of Gordon Brown], could things really be worse than they are now?”

    Yes. Of course things could have been worse. If we’d have got rid of Gordon Brown and had a civil war just before the election, we might now have a Tory majority of 100 and have been beaten into third place in the popular vote by the Lib Dems.

  6. The Future says:

    I’m sorry but the main thrust of this article is fundamentally wrong.

    According to the polls and the research after the election Gordon Brown was a net positive to the Labour brand which admittedly was pretty trashed. You could also argue that someone else may have done even better. But let’s not rewrite history to much. It was Labour that was the problem. Not Gordon Brown.

    In regards to your previous article. Where do you think the Blairites are on the curve of realising that the world has changed since the heyday of 1995 – 2002. It took the Thatcherites from 1990 till 2005 to move on.

    That was 15 years of moaning and misdirection for the Tories. Can you at Labour uncut jump to the end of the curve and accept now that those days are over. Or will we have to wait until 2022?

  7. AmberStar says:

    David Miliband didn’t have the guts to stand against rendition & torture. He didn’t have the guts to openly make a bid for the leadership before the 2010 GE. He didn’t have the guts, during the leadership contest, to lay out a vision for the Party & the country which reached beyond New Labour.

    We didn’t want more of the same – but David Miliband & those who backed him refused to see what would happen if David stood for the leadership… that people who weren’t inside New Labour would vote for anybody, anybody at all, who could beat him.

    You say we should have sacrificed our leader, Gordon Brown, for the good of the Party. I say David Miliband’s supporters should’ve been willing to sacrifice their leader-in-waiting for the good of the Party.

    If David’s erstwhile backers had thrown their support behind Andy Burnham, we would’ve had a personable, electable leader with working class roots & a desire to refresh the Party by building a credible, people friendly, alternative to New Labour.

    But they couldn’t see past David Miliband. So, thanks to them, we got Ed because he was seen as the only one who could beat his brother. If David’s supporters had listened to us, the people who said he was a busted flush before the leadership contest, you wouldn’t be writing articles about why we need another change of leadership – which isn’t going to happen. So you & David Miliband ought to do what we’ve done…. learn to live with Ed as leader.

  8. swatantra says:

    Agree with above comment. D Milliband didn’t have the b***s to stand up against Gordon and challenge him for the Leadership when he had the chance. Labour might still have been in power.
    The fact is Andy has vision and talent and the likability factor and would make an excellent Leader. He made a good speech at Conference.
    D Milliband reminds me a bit like D Owen, a brief spellad Foreign Sec, then the rest of his life spent sulking and sniping and grumbling from the sidelines.
    Eds got one more year to prove himself then he should call it a day and hand over to Andy.

  9. Liberanos says:

    I’m trying hard to imagine a more depressing and retrograde pairing at the top of our Party than Ed and Ken.

    I can’t.

    Fortunately for the party and the country, Ed has no chance. Ken might manage a close one, but I take some comfort that Boris is ahead.

    If only Oona King had managed it. If only David had managed it. If only the bloody party had managed it.

  10. Mike Homfray says:

    What a load of nonsense.

    I just wish some of the Blairite ultras would recognise that they are the past and they are not about to return.

    The party never really liked them. Now they whine about why they weren’t picked as leader, mayoral candidate or whatever.

    The reason really should be clear and will get clearer in years to come as newcomers to the party want something which distinguishes us from the coalition, not a pale copy of it

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