Leadership is not a game, says Dan Hodges

If a week is a long time in politics, then at Labour party conference it’s a lifetime. Remember where we came in. Excited. Hopeful. Enthused. And how we leave. Fractious. Edgy. Uncertain.

It was not supposed to be like this. An emboldened party, united behind its new leader, was meant to stride out, strong in mind and purpose, to take the fight to the government. Instead, we have hit a wall. Political reality has intruded. This was the week we finally realised that the 2010 general election had been lost.

For many of us – dare I say, those if us who are part of Generation Ed – politics has been a long, yet steady, march towards the summit. Kinnock, Smith, Blair and even Brown. All were part of a clear evolutionary process. They represented order. Now, with the election of Ed Miliband, the natural order has been disturbed.

This is not, of itself a negative. It needed something to  jolt us  out of our post election stupor. We have been. Ed’s victory has caused a convulsion.

On Saturday we were a movement in denial. The build up to the leadership announcement was spectacularly misjudged. The video of our achievements in office seemed to taunt the public; ‘See what you’re throwing away. You’ll be sorry’. Gordon’s speech seemed to taunt us all; ‘I will be loyal. Had you been loyal, we wouldn’t be in this mess’.

But it was also instructive. The leadership election had insulated us from reality. Cushioned us from the pain of defeat. At the moment that Ed Miliband was proclaimed leader, the cushion was snatched away.

To many, this analysis may sound churlish. It may be so. But, as I wrote on Monday, suspension of disbelief is no basis for unity. And very few who attended Labour ’10 have experienced such a surreal and, at times downright poisonous, atmosphere at a party conference.

Within Ed Miliband’s camp there is genuine disappointment, even anger, at the way his political honeymoon has been sabotaged by those who favoured a different suitor. “We’ve been reaching out to David’s supporters and they’re not interested. They’re just brushing us off”, said one exasperated insider.

There is some truth in this. The magnanimity David showed at his moment of defeat was not reciprocated by many of those who backed him. And, as we now know, even within David himself, a darkness resided.

Yet the concerns of those who failed to fall on bended knee and salute their new king cannot simply be dismissed as sour grapes. Make no mistake, there were times this week when it looked like the wheels were coming off. The ‘we are the masters now’ posturing of some of Ed’s outer circle has not just been annoying, it’s been politically damaging.

Neil Kinnock is my hero, and I have real respect for both Charlie Whelan and Neal Lawson. But is Neal Kinnock really going to be the poster boy for a new political generation? Are Charlie’s appearances on the Today programme the way to  convince the world that Ed is not in the pocket of the unions? Is Neal Lawson’s interview in the Guardian  going to kill the notion that Labour is more than ever in thrall to a metropolitan liberal elite?

In fairness, those genuinely close to  Ed are alive to the dangers. But they need to do something to neutralise them. And fast.

It can be done. On Monday evening, in the wake of David’s valedictory address, apprehension was turning to panic. The MP who reportedly asked, “I voted for Ed. Can I have my vote back”, was not alone. “Ed’s got to give the speech of his life tomorrow or else…”, was the sentiment of the majority. The consequences of failure hung unspoken.

He didn’t deliver the speech of a lifetime. But he did skilfully diffuse the mounting sense of crisis, and began to sketch a route forward. If we learnt one thing about our new leader, we know that he has the capacity successfully to m eet the moment.

We are however, going to need to learn more. This week saw a bonfire of old certainties. That is refreshing. But Ed cannot allow a vacuum to develop. The Miliband family biography, as outlined in his speech, is a rich and moving one. But we will need more on the man, and his mission, if we are to march in step. This may smack of the old politics, but there is a feeling that people left Manchester still without a clear “line to take” on Ed Miliband.

“This will come”, say those around him. “We have a small team, with many competing priorities. We are not merely inheriting a party infrastructure, but trying to recast it”.

Fair enough. But time is the enemy. One of the most worrying phrases I heard from Ed’s supporters this week was that he would, “grow into the job”. Grow into the job? We’re talking about the next Prime Minister, not a plumber’s mate. He has to hit the ground running.

A key element of this will be the composition of his team. His spinners Polly Billington and Katie Myler are well respected by the Lobby, (though they must quickly resolve their turf war). Stewart Wood, the mastermind behind his victory, is respected by everyone. Lucy Powell, his chief of staff, will bring steel, and sound political  judgement to the role. Even more junior staffers, such as Mike Joslin, will bring a ferocious energy and enthusiasm to the operation.

But there is a perception abroad that Team Ed has a whiff of the student union about it. And that will need to be countered. Some ageing men with beards and bellies, and women (beards optional), will need to brought in to provide ballast.

Because this is not a game. The Labour party is not a petri dish upon which to conduct an experiment in the ‘new politics’. Nor an old boys reunion where veterans of the war against New Labour can share a toast and compare old wounds.

When the Tories are forced into opposition they may complain. But their constituency experiences few real hardships. When we lose power our people get put to the sword. Relief in 10 years will be relief too late.

It was this reality that descended on conference this past week. Or at least, it descended upon the majority. It was a week when we finally realised the enormity of the task ahead of us. There is no harm in that.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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8 Responses to “Leadership is not a game, says Dan Hodges”

  1. Simon says:

    “If a week is a long time in politics, then at Labour party conference it’s a lifetime. Remember where we came in. Excited. Hopeful. Enthused. And how we leave. Fractious. Edgy. Uncertain.”

    Speak for yourself. I’m still the first three.

  2. Dan Hodges says:

    Good for you Simon. Good for you.

  3. Amanda Ramsay says:

    Wish I was, Simon…I’m with you Dan, sadly (hoping that a new Shadow Cabinet with the likes of Yvette Cooper at the helm may help)

  4. I think this sums up the feeling of many who are worryingly preparing for local meetings where original emails about celebrating the new leader are being follwed by ones to ‘talk about’ the new leader so as not to alienate those who feel … well don’t feel like celebrating. Labour is bigger than any of it’s leaders past or present and has always been a very ‘borad church’, I’d like to think there is still room for everyone and still time to look no longer at who but how and where we are led.

  5. Great article Dan, I like that you just say it as you see it in your writing; so many don’t.

    We should all get these things off our chest now while remembering that it’s the tories we are aiming our artillery at and not our own party.

  6. Joe Smith says:

    This article is well off the mark; given the closeness of the two in terms of policy, this exaggerated and melodramatic rhetoric is the sole cause of any bad blood. The conference you write about was not the one I attended.

    I think its time some accept that their choice of leader didn’t make it and move on. Many of us lost elections in May but came back fighting a few weeks later. Embrace the future and the result; stop moaning and stop writing about a fictional negativity. Any ‘split’ is being caused by hype like this that in any real analysis will be shown to be completely unrelated to reality.

    The Labour Party has a lot to look forward to, a lot of work to do and a situation out in the country that needs us to respond well to it. Stop talking about division, start acting in unity with your fellow comrades.

  7. Kitty says:

    Katie Myler, respected by the lobby?! Which one?? Wasn’t so long ago she failed miserably in what should have been the spin operation of her life, and not much further back than that she was booking guests on GMTV. This is what worries me often about people in positions of power in our Party – that those they surround themselves with often give one a clearer idea of their talents or otherwise than they themselves do…

  8. Dan Hodges says:

    “The conference you write about was not the one I attended”

    Maybe Joe. But I thought it was best to write about the one I was at.

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