The twelve rules of opposition: day four

by Atul Hatwal

Rule 4: Recruit the right support team

Voters pick leaders as much as parties or policies. And what turns an opposition leader into a prime-minister-in-waiting is no accident.

This process has been completed seven times since the war. Although the politics of the moment have varied, and the individual matters enormously, there are still some common features to each successful transformation.

First, recruiting the right support team. Second, demonstrating leadership in the party. And third, showcasing the biography so voters understand their future leader.

Ensuring these three elements are in place will not overturn natural disadvantages if the leader isn’t up to the job, but they will help maximise the chances of success.

So much of the focus in defining a leader is on the individual, it’s easy to overlook the importance of their back office team.

So easy that opposition leaders themselves frequently miss it.

But to effectively manage the maelstrom of personalities, policy, politics and publicity that is a normal day in the life of leader of the opposition, a comprehensive support structure is required.

This team protects the leader from pitfalls, insulates them from the headwinds of media opinion and above all else is able to say to them the word that all politicians hate and fear – “no”.

Sycophancy is as much the norm at the top of politics as it is in other sectors. Believing your own publicity is a sure fire route to defeat. Guarding the leader against this tendency, while not puncturing their confidence or belief is a central role of the leader’s team.

In assembling this praetorian guard, most leaders will have a basic core in place from the start,with staffers covering diary, press, policy and speech writing.

But there are extra responsibilities for the leader. Less glamorous responsibilities that either involve doing the things which most politicians dislike or don’t understand.

Two areas in particular stand out as prone to make a leader blanch and can remain unaddressed when recruiting to the leader’s office – fundraising and party management.

And one critical function is usually misunderstood – the role of the chief of staff.

Without substantial funds over and above the state provided “short money”, it’s impossible for an opposition to balance the advantage that civil service resources give the government.

Labour has its financial base in the unions and the Tories their list of wealthy individuals, but unless a broader base of donors is built then its difficult to compete with the government. The headlines shouting about how the leader is in the pocket of their paymasters practically write themselves.

But politicians are notoriously bad at passing round the hat. They find asking for money embarrassing and demeaning. Rejection is a constant fear, underpinned by an unspoken incomprehension as to why anyone would actually want to give them large amounts of money.

Lord Levy was much maligned, but the financial support he secured for Tony Blair meant money was no object in equipping Labour to remove the Tories in 1997. The first time that Labour had ever been in this position.

David Cameron would never even have become Tory leader without Andrew Feldman’s funds financing his leadership campaign in 2005. Feldman’s subsequent work, extending and deepening the Tories donor base, meant that they were able to spend double Labour’s budget in the 2010 campaign.

And Mrs.Thatcher had Alastair McAlpine to thank for funnelling business donations to the Tories to run a campaign on an unprecedented scale for the opposition in 1979. Without his funds there would have been no budget for Saatchi’s and some of that campaign’s most lethal attacks would never have existed.

A money man, or woman, is an essential part of a winning leader’s team.

If money is an awkward subject for politicians, party management is what really makes their eyes roll.

Ensuring the party is quiescent is a tedious business. The mix of ego, historic grievance and ambition that define the cliques in any party create a toxic environment.

For a leader, who has to contend with the government machine and a press which is frequently hostile, dealing with party minutiae is yet another problem for which there is not enough time.

But unless the leader has their party, or at least enough of the party, with them then whatever they attempt will be subsumed in a morass of backbiting and splits.

All MPs and party officials feel the leader does not spend enough time with them or care sufficiently about their issues. Having someone in the leaders office to whom they can go to is an essential connection – part pressure valve, part conduit.

One of Tony Blair’s most important appointments was Sally Morgan to look after the party. She did not receive the profile of Alastair Campbell or Peter Mandelson, but was instrumental in ensuring a challenging leader did not become uncoupled from his party, at least for the first decade.

It was her voice in the leader’s office that persuaded Blair to put the extra effort in with the right members of his party, and her counsel which helped ensure only winnable internal battles were fought.

David Cameron notably has never had an equivalent to Sally Morgan and his relationship with his party has always been problematic.

For all of Blair’s modernising, he carried the overwhelming majority of his MPs and members with him in opposition. The same could not be said for Cameron, who has consistently faced a hostile caucus within his party.

Out of the three problem areas in a leader’s office though, perhaps the most persistently misunderstood, is chief of staff.

In British politics, the chief of staff is a comparatively new development. Jonathan Powell was the first. Before then, whether in government or in opposition, there had not been a senior staff member to bring together the various factions in the leader’s entourage – press, policy and party.

Adjudicating in the various disputes always fell to the leader.

Part adviser, part programme manager, the chief of staff needs to wield absolute authority over the leader’s team.

There are only ever two sources for this authority, proximity to the leader and personal experience. Powell had the latter and developed the former.  But since then, the majority of opposition chiefs of staff have been the opposite.

William Hague had Seb Coe and Iain Duncan Smith appointed Tim Montgomerie. Michael Howard had Stephen Sherborne, who was unique in having both proximity and track record, but David Cameron returned to form by appointing his old mate from Eton and Oxford, Ed Llewellyn.

While leaders like having someone they trust absolutely running their office, it fundamentally misunderstands the role of chief of staff. Trust is important, but ability and gravitas in managing a strong-willed and opinionated team are the essential attributes.

Without these the team will just try to bypass the chief of staff and speak to the leader directly.

The stories from Seb Coe’s tenure are legion. His penchant for changing his mind meant that staffers were continually trying to work with Hague directly to manage Coe.

On one occasion, at the height of the 2001 election campaign, Coe even switched the destination of the leader’s plane while in the air just minutes from their destination, prompting frantic pleas to the leader as that day’s media grid was thrown into complete chaos.

While Coe’s successors have not been prone to the same exigencies, the stories of Ed Llewelyn’s lack of confidence and personal command are a recurring theme of tales from the Tories’ recent stint in opposition under Cameron.

It’s no coincidence that Stephen Gilbert was brought in after the election to bolster the team.

Ed Miliband’s recent appointment of Tim Livesey seems a return to a Powell type figure. But whether his record working with the archbishop of Canterbury is sufficient to manage with authority while he builds a relationship with the leader, is an open question.

Leaders’ professional inexperience in understanding what makes a good chief of staff can destabilise their team. When combined with a reluctance to raise funds and commit the necessary time to managing the party, an incomplete team will critically undermine their efforts.

The fourth rule of opposition might not be the most immediately obvious, but unless the leader’s office is robust, it will be difficult transform the opposition leader into an alternative prime minister.

Particularly as rule five involves picking a fight with parts of the party.

Tomorrow: Rule 5 – Be the change you want voters to see

Atul Hatwal is associate editor of Labour Uncut.


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2 Responses to “The twelve rules of opposition: day four”

  1. swatantra says:

    Asking people for money is so embarassing. Its about time State Funding was brought in so that parties are not beholden to anyone apart from the electorate.
    There should be an elected chair of he Party to ensure that the Leader doesnt lose touch with what the groundswell of opinion is in the Party. The Chif odf Staff can sometimes be a gated barrier to true feelings within a Party.

  2. It will take at least a generation, if ever before any political party can sensibly contemplate proposing state funding. The outrage over the expenses scandal may appear to be less vociferous than before but the public perception of MPs in general has fundamentally changed because of it. That’s why it won’t wash with the voters.

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