A closer look at Ed’s new chief of staff

by Atul Hatwal

One of the longest running vacancies in politics was finally filled earlier this week. Over a year after he became leader, Ed Miliband has appointed a chief of staff: Tim Livesey.

The role of chief of staff is an essential part of the leader’s office. Part project manager, part adviser, wholly accountable for the smooth running of the leader’s world, whatever is going on, particularly if it’s going wrong, the buck stops with the chief of staff.

The billing for Tim Livesey is that he is a heavyweight appointment. He’s the man who will bring experience and assurance to the running of the team.

Following a difficult year with problems ranging from avoidable flurries such as the recent confusion around the departure of Ayesha Hazarika from PMQ preparation duties, to major misjudgements like that conference speech, a firmer hand on the tiller will clearly help.

Tim Livesey’s background seems to fit the bill. A high flying career in the foreign office, media experience as assistant press secretary to Tony Blair and the best part of a decade in the service of the Archbishop of Canterbury, principally running his PR operation, mean he has the type of broad experience required.

Using Livesey’s record to divine (so to speak) the type of advice he will give to the Labour leader, three incidents stand out.

First, his comments in a seminar about how politicians should present themselves in the media; second, the row over the church of England’s ham-fisted intervention on gay adoption; and third, his role in Rowan Williams’ controversial sharia law speech.

Just before Tony Blair left office, in one of his final speeches, he discussed the adverse impact of the media on public life. In a subsequent seminar, Tim Livesey was on the panel discussing this view.

Notably, given Livesey’s new job, he disagreed with Blair’s view that politicians needed more effective press offices to ensure that their message was heard. Instead, he felt that politicians needed to communicate as themselves and that it was the media who had a responsibility to humanise rather than dehumanise.

It is a laudable view. One that is likely to chime with Ed Miliband’s own desire for a more civilised political discourse. But whether it’s practical is another matter. Regardless of how much people wish that the media were different, and that the world were a nicer place, the rules of the game are unlikely to change soon.

The tendency towards West Wing cliché – let Ed be Ed – is already strong enough in the leader’s entourage. If Livesey adds to this, and bolsters Ed Miliband’s reluctance to operate on the media’s terms, the task of getting Labour’s message out will become that much harder.

Second, there was Rowan Williams and John Sentamu’s letter to Tony Blair in 2007 backing the catholic church’s attempt to exempt itself from the equality act and maintain discrimination against gay couples in its adoption services.

There were two elements in this episode which raise questions for Livesey in his new role.

First, if Ed Miliband’s chief of staff currently believes that discrimination against gay couples on adoption is justified on religious grounds, then that will give many cause for concern given his senior position advising the leader.

Second, there was the professionalism of how the issue was handled. Based on Williams and Sentamu’s beliefs, it might have been the right thing to do, but the letter was sent late in the process after policy was long decided and positioned the church of England as trailing after the catholic church.

Number ten did not have any idea the letter was coming and the effect was to make the church of England look more impotent than ever. Hardly a strategic triumph that is the basis for prime time political decision-making.

The PR car crash of the archbishops’ letter was echoed a year later in Rowan Williams’ speech on sharia law.

In 2008, the archbishop of Canterbury delivered a speech where the headlines were that the incorporation of aspects of sharia law into UK law seemed unavoidable and that a situation where all had to abide by a single set of laws wasn’t desirable.

The actual message that Williams was attempting to deliver was no doubt nuanced, certainly compared to the reporting, but Livesey’s judgement in not anticipating the media reaction to the speech is surprising.

As Ed Miliband’s most senior adviser he will be widely consulted on the content of the leader’s speeches and policy announcements.

Although Tom Baldwin and Bob Roberts are there to raise media red flags, the chief of staff will need to have a tight grip on what is and what is not acceptable if he is to wield the authority the role requires.

It’s entirely possible, even likely, that Livesey will have learnt from these mis-steps. But in the past five years, there aren’t many instances where the archbishop of Canterbury is widely seen to have made the correct small ‘p’ political judgements on the major issues, or handled the media well.

This could have been down to Rowan Williams’ own judgement, but Ed Miliband is in need of the best possible support to turn around Labour’s fortunes. Tim Livesey will probably improve the management of the leader’s office, but for all the knowledge and contacts he brings to the role, the archbishop of Canterbury’s performance under his guidance was far from ideal.

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.

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6 Responses to “A closer look at Ed’s new chief of staff”

  1. swatantra says:

    Well I suppose a change is as good as a rest. Lets hope this new bloke can breathe some life into a pretty downcast Party. Ed needs to get out more and meet real people. Do what Nixon did in ’68 and work on the likeability factor which is regretably missing.

  2. Felix says:

    Just what you’d expect from Uncut: select a couple of incidents which could be judged in different ways depending on one’s subjective starting point and use them to pick holes and undermine anything that Ed Miliband does.

    I really do wonder why you lot bother wasting so much of your time trashing him and the party if it’s all so dire. Do you not have more interesting things to do with your lives? It all smacks of monomaniacal obsessiveness.

  3. dan mccurry says:

    To be fair, Atul, the Anglican church has been tearing itself apart over liberalism, whether that be gay priests or gay marriages. The Archbishop has to keep everyone happy to avoid the church splitting. It’s also policy that the Catholic church should be supported. A letter of support that comes too late to be effective, may well have been more intelligent than you give credit for.

    The Shiria law business is an altogether different matter. That was a major misjudgement of public mood.

  4. The problem is that Ed M, and a lot of the people around him, probably don’t share your view that “there aren’t many instances where the archbishop of Canterbury is widely seen to have made the correct small ‘p’ political judgements on the major issues, or handled the media well.”
    The archbish has adopted lock, stock and barrel what has become a somewhat hackneyed ‘liturgical liberalism’ which chimes just absolutely perfectly with Ed M’s retreat to the soft left of the mid-1980s, and the persistence of many in the Labour movement in believing that conservatism is not just incorrect in its policy prescriptions, but downright wicked in its motivation. And it’s difficult when you hold those views, when you feel this viscerally, to separate out what he’s been saying from how he’s gone about saying it.

  5. gracie says:

    Yet again Uncut goes for the jugular, if you are so damned cleaver Atul why aren’t you in Livesy’s job?

    You do not know the history behind those two events, you only “know” what you think you know, which could turn out to be zero. For example, do you actually know that Livesy did not try to dissuade the incidents you describe?

    The consensus is that Livesy will be a good and invaluable addition to Ed’s team, but rather than talk Ed and Labour up just for a change, you have to attack – why? One could point to your entries on here as being misguided and wrong, a great many people think they are, but not you (apparently). It must be great to be so “right” all of the time! Get over yourself!

  6. NBeale says:

    Livesy seems a very decent man. How long this devout Roman Catholic will last in the highly atheistic atmosphere at the top of Labour (though interestingly Balls says he’s CofE) remains to be seen. It would be nice if the Labour Party became more like the CofE – but the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to me to have even worse PR than Ed Milliband.

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