To boldly go… Ed’s relationship with enterprise

by Rob Marchant

It’s been an eventful couple of weeks. So, the ship has now set a course and we’ve done the crew changeover. It may be a course that not everyone’s happy with, but let’s face it: they never are, are they? And at least there is a course.

The Tory conference wasn’t a failure, but it wasn’t exactly a runaway success, either. What with Teresa May’s cats and Cameron’s dogs, it seemed sometimes that it was raining very hard last week. And the mess now being caused by Liam Fox has helped us. So let’s be thankful for small mercies and look to the future.

In a year’s time, we’ll be looking to the completion of the policy review. We will be practically at the electoral midpoint, and will know for sure whether regaining the London mayoralty was a real possibility or a pipe-dream (the tea-leaves, admittedly, do not look good on this one). We will then be able to start setting out broad policy lines and start long-term planning for the next election. Things aren’t so bad, right?

This, at least, seems to be more or less what conventional wisdom in the party is saying. Full speed ahead, we’re on our way. The question is, of course: is this a realistic assessment of where we are? Casting an eye over the three major political developments over the last two weeks, not forgetting the euro crisis, which is likely to have a further, substantial impact on everything, it doesn’t look it. We know that a deliberate step-change has been made as regards the riskiness of the strategy; but it’s useful to look at just how much.

First, the leader’s speech. The jury is still out as to how it was received in the country. Ignored is probably closest to the truth, as Peter Watt fairly notes about most conference speeches, but the media generally panned it (sorry, Peter Oborne does not count). There may even have been a negative impact on personal poll ratings (although, as Political Betting’s Mike Smithson rightly points out, conference week polls are notoriously unreliable. We shall see).

Cameron’s was a lack-lustre speech. But it had two advantages: it made no claims to be game-changing, and it contained serious policy meat. Most importantly, it was prime ministerial. Even if we add, generously, the phrase “all other things being equal”, prime minister generally trumps leader of the opposition, unless the government is in serious trouble, which it is not.

In any event, if (a) your opponents think that the story of conference season is your speech; (b) that angle gets traction in the media; and (c) you spend several days rebutting that story; then, independent of the politics of the speech, something hasn’t gone quite right.

Second, the shadow cabinet reshuffle. The good news is that lots of sensible, bright people have been promoted. Ed Miliband has, to his great credit, learned a lesson from Brown, who often tried to limit the ambitions of those who differed from his worldview, irrespective of talent. So the promotions come from across the political spectrum. The bad news is that two solid elder statesmen, Denham and Healey, are gone of their own volition before it even started. This should give us pause.

Politicians, like anyone, have to make reasonable personal judgement calls about their future. Contrary to popular opinion, spending more time with their family is often a genuine reason, but it’s rarely the only one. The likelihood is that they either think they are about to be sacked, or they simply feel things are seriously wrong and are not prepared to wait for them to change. Liberal Conspiracy has an interesting theory about this in the case of Denham.

In both cases, it looks like the latter, which is telling. On top of this, the loss of these two fifty-somethings makes a total of four senior figures who have voluntarily returned to the back benches in the last year. It means that the shadow cabinet now looks greener than ever, already one of its weaknesses. It also, with a total of 31 attendees, looks unwieldy.

The third and more unsung reason is deeper and longer-term: party reform. It is fundamental to a party aspiring to government that it has a party machine which has sufficient funds. These funds need to provide reasonable fighting capacity, which provides the optimum, meritocratically-chosen pool of people to become elected representatives and whose decision-making bodies will not act as a brake on reform. The first is untrue in the case of Labour, the second has not been true for some time and the third is at least highly debatable.

One tragedy of the conference, its importance lost on all but the most nerdy, has been the opportunity tragically missed by the refounding Labour reform programme. Further reform is now realistically off the agenda until the loss of an election and/or a change of leader, and possibly not even then. So there will be no revision of a flawed parliamentary selection process. No reform of the voting structures which encourage leadership and parliamentary candidates to make un-keepable promises to union officials. No real involvement of the wider body of Labour supporters. And that’s before we even get to the ideologically-driven gender quotas in the shadow cabinet and on the party leadership ticket. On the positive side, we seem to have achieved a modest improvement in funding arrangements for local parties. That’s a good deal?

In short, we are storing up trouble for the future by not taking the opportunity of a generation. There remains only one, partial way out of the unhappy state the party organisation currently finds itself in. That is finding other sources of funding, fast. Which probably means rebuilding bridges with business. And, even if this is achievable, the other problems are still there.

Dan Hodges quotes a Miliband insider as saying, “if you want to win an election in one term you have to take risks, a safety first approach just won’t cut it”. And, returning to the ship metaphor in light of all this, we find it somehow lacking. “Full speed ahead” seems now too measured, too complacent. No, following the “ripping up the rulebook” speech, and its assumption of a considerably more risk-friendly strategy, one is tempted to wrench aside that image and replace it with another. It is still a ship of sorts, and it is still full speed ahead, but it’s more like we’ve been transported to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Off we boldly go on a new, high-risk assignment, at a dizzying tangent to our previous course.

So, for those with delicate stomachs, it’s clear that you can forget the steady-as-she-goes. As our current strategy stands, it’s warp factor six, please, Mr. Sulu, and don’t spare the di-lithium crystals.

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

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8 Responses to “To boldly go… Ed’s relationship with enterprise”

  1. Nick says:

    On party funds.

    Given that you are reliant on the unions, and in particular on one bank has loaned its entire capital to Labour, its a problem. If the BoE does its job, Labour will be asked to repay and it can’t.

    There is also the modernisation funds, which is nothing more than getting government money to the unions, who them give it to Labour. That’s going.

    Then you have the ‘pilgims’ being made to provide services to the public, not services to union members.

    Drip drip drip and the tap is being turned off.

    As for enterprise, here’s the summary of Labour’s view. Contradict if you can.

    The UK is a something for nothing society, and as Labour we’re going to be at the heart of it. We’re going to take 50% of any entrepreneur’s profits, and none of the losses, and we’re not going to lift a figure to help.

    No wonder companies are moving overseas, or even people such as Philip Green.

  2. The Future says:

    On polls there is no question whatsoever how Ed’s speech was received at that was very very well. That is in terms of the content. The bit the press and others on here liked to pan. Granted they needed more assurance over Ed’s ability to deliver it. But the content was a clear win.

    What I think is important is that Ed’s detractors at least offer up an alternative that isn’t let’s just triangulate the Tories. Take the biggest issue of the day. The economy.

    If we had listened and followed the likes of Peter Watt and Dan Hodges ie agreed with the Tories and tried to close down the issue. Not only would we have had nothing to say that was different from the Tories. But we would have had nothing to say and been wrong!

    Now we can at least say we offered an alternative and that the country would have been better off if our path had been followed.

    So I would suggest, if you want to criticise Ed. In spite of polling evidence, then at least offer an alternative which is more than just pretend to be Tories.

  3. swatantra says:

    Funding. just because the Party was a child of the Unions doesn’t mean that it is ever beholden to the Unions. a wise parent lets their child grow and develo; the special relationship is always there but has to change. Its a fact of life. So rob makes an valid point about a formula for alternative funding.
    Labur needs an imaginative leap ithe same way that Physics developed from Newtonian to Quantum. And in the quantum world things are different and behave diffrently. So Hodges is right. It requires bold measures not a steady as you go approach. The loss of a few senior members of the Party is in a sense no loss. No one is indispensible. Their going opens up opportunities for fresher faces and ideas and builds up experience fr the future. And Ed’s new faces are on the whole good. But there is still a lot of deadwood floating around.

  4. Rob Marchant says:

    @Nick: I’m afraid your maths is a bit up the swannee. If there is a bank which has lent its entire capital to the Labour Party, the amount of the Labour Party’s turnover is so small a proportion of the capitalisation of even a local building society that it could never be viable. I am fascinated to know which financial body you are talking about, but I fear your information is merely colossally wrong. Your general point that union funding is drying up, however, is partially correct. Except unions still have a lot of money and it’s unlikely that Labour’s funding will change that radically, barring a very radical outcome of the current enquiry.

    On entrepreneurship, in fact Labour even in the darkest days of the Brown government was very pro-business. The 50% tax is not just to business, as you well know, it’s to individual taxpayers as well and it’s supposed to be a temporary measure.

    @TheFuture: ok perfect. Just let me have the links to those upward leaps in the polls, eh? Btw Messrs Hodges and Watt have never said adopt Tory policy. Peter said stick to Tory fiscal limits, as did I. It seems that Ed Balls has now come round to our way of thinking.

    @Swatantra: yes, I think the finding of alternative funding is a sine qua non. Not sure if I agree on the quantum leap, though, that’s what I think we have just done and it has been an extremely high-risk strategy.

  5. Real Chris says:


    “Peter said stick to Tory fiscal limits, as did I. It seems that Ed Balls has now come round to our way of thinking.”

    Sorry, when did this colossal u-turn by Ed Balls happen?

  6. Rob Marchant says:

    @Real Chris: ah, you’ll have missed his conference speech, then.

  7. AmberStar says:

    …and it [Cameron’s speech] contained serious policy meat.
    Did it? I didn’t spot any policy meat at all. Please elucidate.

  8. Cat says:


    I did watch the one where he called for an immediate cut in VAT, costing £13bn pa. Does that fit within Tory spending limits?

    Watt said is his article:

    “So the first thing that we should do is just accept the Tory spending plans as set out in the spending review.”

    You agreed with him then and still do. The spending plans that Osborne set out in Oct 10, which you want Labour to stick to, have been a total failure. Soon we’ll have been in a longer depression than the 1930s, austerity has taken the world back to the brink. And you think Balls endorsed those cuts in his speech. Please, please detail where he did.

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