Labour will need both Darling and Johnson at the next election

by Jonathan Todd

Unity should run through Labour like a stick of rock. Following David Miliband’s departure, we should reflect on what this might mean for figures like Alistair Darling and Alan Johnson in the general election campaign.

It seems that Ed Miliband left the door open for his brother to serve on his frontbench but David preferred to run the International Rescue Committee. It also seems to me that Jonathan Freedland has called this correctly by saying this was the best decision for David but may not be for Labour.

Things are not quite so desperate that all Ed can offer the British people is blood, toil, tears and sweat. But it might not be so far off. We are in the slowest economic recovery on record and the fiscal position becomes ever more horrific.

The only quick and easy road for Ed will be to the kind of unhappy position of Francois Hollande, which he created for himself by having “rather pretended to the French that he and they wouldn’t have to make any difficult choices”, as Andrew Rawnsley put it.

We should level with people that life under PM Ed will be a hard slog. But less so than under this government because of the one nation approach that Ed would bring to his task. Yet Gaby Hinsliff has observed of this thematic frame:

“For all I know it may embrace raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, and feel warmly towards brown paper packages tied up with string: it’s not that these ideas are impossibly contradictory, just that cramming too many of them beneath one umbrella term renders it faintly meaningless.”

In essence, however, its offer is straightforward: We will achieve more as a country if we all pull together and share the rewards of our efforts. It is an appeal to national unity, which has been prevented by a government that has “stood up for the wrong people”.

We can quibble over policy and strategic details: the way in which the debate on immigration is following the welfare debate is becoming divorced from fact; the persistent failure of banking “reform” to get to the fundamental issues; and the possibility that the government’s dearth of competence may be a weaker spot than their closeness to fat cat Britain.

Given the immense challenges facing the UK, however, the underlying goal of trying to make Labour a tribune of national unity must be right. Nonetheless, the harsh question that David Miliband’s departure poses is: If Ed Miliband cannot secure unity in his own family, how can he deliver it for the country?

To many voters Ed is little more than someone who used to work for Gordon Brown and beat his brother. Now Brown is a bad memory and David is exiled in New York. Ed has tried to move the party on from Brown’s time in government – especially on immigration, welfare and Iraq – and it may have helped if David could have made these efforts alongside him.

A consistently united front from the brothers would have put their “soap opera” to bed. It seems that Ed offered this possibility to David. It is for David’s conscience to consider whether he has done the right thing by his country, party and constituents.

Family politics are one thing. The politics that usually define opposition leaders are how they manage their own party. Devoid of executive powers, party management communicates how they would conduct themselves if possessed of such powers.

If Ed is arguing that he would use these powers to create a national unity that Cameron cannot, should he not seek to manage his party in a way that communicates this? What, if anything, does this suggest about the roles of players like Darling and Johnson, who are both well-known and relatively popular with the public?

It might be argued that the profiles of newer figures like Chuka Umunna and Rachel Reeves are more important, as they communicate much needed change and freshness. While this is undoubtedly true, it is usually Ed Balls’ shadow chancellor job that speculation about Darling focuses upon. Balls is, though, too pivotal a figure to be removed.

Thus, the question becomes: How can Darling and Johnson fit into a frontbench that includes Umunna and Reeves, as well as shadow chancellor Balls?

It is not immediately obvious how this rubik’s cube can be completed. But egos must be cast aside and the party’s interest put first. Fielding our strongest possible team for the election would communicate the same unity and shared purpose within the party that we seek to bring to the country.

The frontbench return of Darling and Johnson can probably wait till after the Scottish independence referendum, which we can hope will further raise Darling’s stock. But, having seen his brother slip away, it is not too early for Ed Miliband to begin planning the choreography of these returns.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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12 Responses to “Labour will need both Darling and Johnson at the next election”

  1. Nick says:

    Since you added over 736 bn a year to the debt between 2005 and 2010, can you define dire with some numbers?

  2. Kevin Barry says:

    I have been wary of the claim that David Miliband’s departure is the cataclysmic news that we are being led to believe, as he has appeared rather disengaged for some time. He has gone, and the Labour party moves on. I would agree with Jonathan that this government’s competency is going to be increasingly questioned, and the recent report of potentiallyfreezing or cutting the minimum wage is indicative of the sheer desperation that has gripped this government – they are running out of time. As for Darling and Johnson: what would they do? For a brief spell, Alan Johnson was shadow chancellor. What would he be offered, and does he necessarily wish to front-bench politics? The same with Darling, which role, if any, would he fill on a shadow cabinet? There is already a very competent shadow chancellor. Of course, as Jonathan states, the choreography of potential returns is in large part down to Ed Miliband.

  3. Steven says:

    Surely now that David is gone it is time for Tony Blair to return to UK politics?

    If Blair were to be offered a seat the credibility of the Labour Party would sky-rocket overnight and this would out-weigh any short-comings that might result from the rehabilitation of comparative lightweights like Darling and Johnson. Let’s not forget that Johnson’s performance as shadow-chancellor was worse than useless and Darling failed to lift a finger while financial markets ran out of control.

  4. Renie Anjeh says:

    Alistair Darling for Shadow Chancellor.

  5. Ex-labour says:

    I’m amazed by the support for Balls. Even his own personal polling tells him the public do not like him. Many left wing commentators say he is a drag on the Labour ticket and should be removed. Darling has much more credibility and I dare say the public would feel safer financially with him as Chancellor.

    As for Johnson, I’m not really sure where he would fit. Seems to me based on his last spell in government that he does not have any particular attributes that fit in any specific role.

  6. swatantra says:

    Johnson has reached the end of the road, and Tony has lost all credibility; no one seriously believes in his return to active politics surely, maybe as a retired elder Statesman but not in Parliament. He did the right thing not to go to the Lords.
    If Tony were to return, I can guarantee that 50 000+ LP members would leave in the first week. Lets face it, Chuka and Rachel are on the up escalator and deserve better jobs and Yvette and Ed Balls are definitely on the down as are Angela Eagle and Liam Byrne. Some old timers still have some service left in them like Darling and Margaret Becket, who wasn’t really given long enough in the FO, and Jaqui Smith derserves another chance; both could go to the Lords.

  7. Henrik says:

    Oh yes, comrades, keep Balls, he’s pretty much a guarantee that you won’t win the election.

    On where Johnson fits, might I speculate that his function is to remind folk of what the Labour Party is actually about – you know, working folk who made something of themselves and got into politics in order to improve the lot of their class brethren? Ring any bells? No? Sure? Workers with hand and brain? Ah well.

    Tchah. It’s his own fault for not going to Oxbridge and becoming a SPAD.

  8. john P reid says:

    i agree with renie

  9. Robin Thorpe says:

    I like Ed Balls. I think that his economic judgement over the last few years has been good and he is a fairly rounded person with interests away from party political matters. Unfortunately for him when he has never escaped the shadow of Gordon Brown and some of the mistakes that he and Brown made when Balls worked in the Treasury. It would seem to be true that he is not a popular personality; whether we like it or not popularity matters. It may be a blow to his ego but if Balls being sacked from the front-bench boosts support amongst the voters then it is the right thing to do.
    Whether Darling is the right choice to replace him is another matter; again I like Darling and I think his shrewd analysis of macro-economics is generally sound and easy to understand. But do the electorate remember him as being the man responsible for the Treasury when the banking crisis happened or as the man who prevented contagion spreading?
    Seeing as we are speculating about who should go or stay may I say that I think Rachel Reeves is a rising star, that Stephen Twigg is largely ineffective and that Liam Byrne is a liability (even before the note to the Treasury incident).

  10. savepenrhos says:

    Johnson is a bloody Tory and a Thatcherite one at that. Balls is an obnoxious gob-shite, Cooper is a vote loser every time she opens her mouth.

    Darling will probably be viewed in history as the finest leader Labour never had. He would have made a first rate leader and a natural bridge between traditionalist and progressive, left wing and right.

  11. anne says:

    Darling is doing a very good job in heading the campaign to keep a united kingdom – this should be the immediate priority. This would certainly strengthen the ‘One Nation’ idea – also, I think, we are stronger together as the United Kingdom.

    Increasing the Labour vote in Scotland is also needed – what about Darling as first minister for Scotland?

  12. swatantra says:

    Thanks Anne, I suggested that a year ago, should the Scots go for Independence. if Darling isn’t brought back to replace Balls soon, then its pretty pointless Darling remaining in Westmister. Scots Labour need some big guns batting for Labour in Holyrood, big enough to take on Salmond. There might even be a role for Gordon there as well, instead of moping around Westminster.

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