by Atul Hatwal
The cracks are beginning to show. Over the weeks since Ed Miliband reshuffled the shadow cabinet, Uncut has been contacted by a range of different sources, seeking to tell their side of the story about what is going on beneath the slowly fracturing façade of PLP unity.
Piecing together the various accounts, a rather different picture emerges of the reshuffle, to the one commonly reported.
At the heart of it is a leader’s office dominated by fear.
Not fear of what the Tories are doing to the country, or for the electoral battle to come, but a fatalistic conviction that Ed Miliband will either be toppled as Labour’s leader before the next election, or so destabilised as to be incapable of fighting effectively.
This fear framed the reshuffle as Ed Miliband attempted to deal with Blairites, Ballsites, the new hero of the soft left, Andy Burnham and even the young pretender, Chuka Umunna.
The cull of the three Blairites – Jim Murphy, Liam Byrne and Steven Twigg – has been widely discussed, but what is less well known, Westminster sources suggest, is that when faced with Ed Miliband’s concerted move against them, the three discussed their options.
Collective resignation was the first impulse but two factors are said to have changed their minds: the sense that this was their party too and they could still exert some influence on policy; and that any resignation would simply have been written up as sour grapes from the snubbed.
The deep anger felt by each of the three is not in question. Liam Byrne is said to be particularly aggrieved – sources familiar with his thinking say that in over two years as shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, the number of times he was able to sit down with the leader and discuss the issues around welfare, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Not including the thumb.
The combination of heartfelt anger along with a desire not to be seen to put career over party, raises the possibility for resignations downstream on points of principle.
From the perspective of a worried leader’s office, it would almost have been better if the three had resigned and their powder was spent. Any subsequent rebellion could have been dismissed as yet more Blairite sour grapes.
Now there is the hanging threat, every time a divisive issue arises. If there were to be a re-run of the Syria vote, would Jim Murphy stay in the shadow cabinet?
But, if Ed Miliband’s personal team is concerned about the Blairites, it is as nothing to their fear of the Ballsites.
Yvette Cooper, the bookies’ favourite to be next leader, is the figure haunting Miliband’s nightmares. All sides know that if Ed Miliband fell under a bus this side of a general election – metaphorically or literally – she would be almost unbeatable.
It was widely canvassed at Labour conference that Ed Miliband was thinking of swapping Cooper and Burnham to weaken both. But he was unable to shift the increasingly popular Burnham (of which more later), and the entrenched Cooper, so he took other action.
The equalities brief was stripped away from Cooper and given to Gloria Di Piero.
Although a comparatively minor part of her portfolio, the change deprives Cooper of a platform she had been using effectively to define herself as a champion of women’s rights, broadening her appeal on the left and consolidating her support among the party’s powerful women’s networks.
Miliband also moved to undermine the power behind Yvette Cooper’s run for leader, clipping Ed Balls’ wings with the appointment of Spencer Livermore to run the general election campaign.
The antagonism between the Livermore and Balls is well known, since the former became the scapegoat for the election that never was in November 2007 and was forced out of Gordon Brown’s team in Number 10.
This appointment means the shadow chancellor will have virtually no say in the strategy or detail of the general election campaign, and most importantly, will be unable to help his wife secure the type of campaign profile needed, in the coming months, to publicly cement her position as the next leader.
Within the world of the Ballsites, these changes have been keenly felt, deepening the mistrust between the shadow chancellor and leader. The Ballsites already suspect that Miliband would have moved Ed Balls if he was strong enough and now relations are at a new low.
Remarkably, it is a level of antipathy that, sources suggest, is almost replicated in what had initially been one of the warmer relationships in the shadow cabinet – between Ed Miliband and Andy Burnham.
Burnham’s journey from New Labour stalwart to bulwark against any private involvement in the NHS has delighted the Labour left and unnerved the leader’s office. Members of the PLP talk about a Burnham campaign in an advanced state of readiness with over 20 MPs ready to commit to his cause.
The shadow health secretary’s megaphone lobbying over summer, where he campaigned loudly to both stay in his job and have the party adopt his plans for integrated health and social care, are just the latest evidence of the extent to which communication has broken down with the leader.
Sources close to the shadow health secretary describe a man who has passed beyond frustration with his leader. They suggest a similar experience to Liam Byrne’s, where attempts to have substantive dialogue with Ed Miliband about the detail of policy have been evaded while the shadow secretary’s policy proposals have been run into the sand by the leader’s office.
That Andy Burnham was able to resist Ed Miliband’s desire to move him is indicative of Burnham’s new strength and the power of having support from the left.
If Ed Miliband was thwarted in his desire to limit Andy Burnham’s ambition, he was more successful in his action to restrain Chuka Umunna’s rising star.
Umunna might have once been the leader’s PPS, but latterly Miliband’s aides have been looking on in a state of growing agitation at Umunna’s outsized personal office and assiduous charming of journalists and PLP colleagues.
Umunna’s interview with Progress magazine, where he was the cover star for the conference issue, was seen as the latest step in an escalating leadership campaign. The manner in which he went out of his way to criticise the European candidate selection process in London, and back Anne Fairweather’s candidacy, was viewed as a shameless play for the centrist vote within the party.
Although Umunna remained at BIS in the reshuffle, sources suggest team Miliband have acted by introducing a rival into the political reckoning, to split Chuka’s core vote.
Tristram Hunt is being positioned as the anti-Chuka.
Expect Hunt to be given substantial policy leeway and prime media opportunities, much as Chuka once enjoyed, to set a Hunt-for-leader bandwagon rolling, preferably straight into Chuka’s.
In one sense, the careful consideration demonstrated by Ed Miliband in his attempt to stymie his rivals is impressive.
The senior Blairites who were Ed Miliband’s peers as advisers and MPs have been successfully demoted. Yvette Cooper can no longer cast herself as the party’s Boudicca and will have to concentrate on out toughing the Tories on law and order – hardly the sweetspot for activists.
Ed Balls has been cut out of election planning and within a year, Chuka will have a rival for the role of “new hope”.
Andy Burnham might have emerged unscathed, but team Miliband can content themselves that the Tories’ focus on Mid Staffs and his tenure at the department of health will damage his leadership credentials.
Yet, while the leader’s office achieved most of what they wanted, they have not resolved any of the core problems. The rivalries are still there, now deepened by the bitterness of the reshuffle.
If Labour had maintained a double digit headline poll lead, and pulled ahead on the economy, all of these considerations would be irrelevant. But it hasn’t.
If and when the polls continue to narrow, as the pressure mounts, then these very real divisions will become increasingly visible beyond the Westminster village. At that point, with a party potentially descending into open conflict, how Ed Miliband responds will define his leadership.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut