With Douglas Alexander in the firing line, cui bono?

by Atul Hatwal

As Labour’s internal wrangles have spilled into the papers over the past week, there has been a single thread running through each story. Sam Coates at the Times summarised it well on Sunday when he tweeted,

One common theme in all Labour row stories this weekend (and my piece last week): all involve people having problem with Douglas Alexander

— Sam Coates Times (@SamCoatesTimes) March 30, 2014

Last week Douglas Alexander was vetoing John Cruddas’ expansive policy review proposals. Then on Saturday he was firing Arnie Graf, swiftly followed on Sunday with Alexander falling out with almost everyone involved in Labour’s campaign.

This last story in the Mail on Sunday was particularly jaw-dropping, even by Labour’s standards of red on red briefing. The incredible level of detail, the direct quotes and conspicuous subsequent silence from the principals on several of its specifics, speaks volumes about the splits at the top of the party.

The narrative seems set: Douglas Alexander is the problem.

But is this all rather too easy? Allies of Douglas Alexander and even neutrals are suggesting a rather different view of what is happening within Labour.

The missing element in all of these stories is some important context about the battles behind the scenes as Labour attempts to define its policy platform.

Since the start of the year, a new word has crept into the lexicon of Labour’s internal debate: “No.”

For the first time since Ed Miliband became leader, policy proposals from the shadow cabinet are not just being punted into the long grass of the Cruddas policy review, actual decisions are being made.

And most of the time, that decision is “no.”

The twin drivers of cost and the need for a credible retail offer are winnowing out the wheat from the swirling chaff in Labour’s emerging manifesto.

Broadly, Ed Balls is the arbiter on cost and Douglas Alexander, in his role as general election co-ordinator, is the leading voice on what will pass electoral muster.

There is a high level of alignment between both drivers, after all affordability is central to electoral credibility.

However, the process of rejecting most of the varied assortment of policy wheezes and theoretical programmes submitted by the shadow cabinet carries significant political costs.

There are no thanks to be had from shadow Ministers when their cherished, election-winning, game-changing pet proposals are unceremoniously dumped.

If Labour were riding high in the polls, with a strong and secure leader, this wouldn’t matter. But with a plummeting poll lead and unpopular leader, this process has become politically toxic with two immediate consequences.

First, Ed Miliband has consciously stepped back from the tough conversations on what gets cut. His support in the PLP has always been lukewarm at best and direct confrontation with most of his shadow cabinet would politically weaken him at a time when narrowing polls are already robbing him of authority.

Instead, the Labour leader is happy to allow Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander to do the dirty work, while he sanctions decisions in the background.

Second, as the prospect of a Labour defeat in next year’s general election becomes a very real possibility, so the calculations associated with leadership succession have become more prominent.

For Ed Balls, whose wife Yvette Cooper is clear favourite for the leadership if there is a vacancy in 2015, this means enmities built up this side of the general election could have big consequences for any Cooper leadership bid post-defeat.

The result is a policy decision-making process where the Labour leader is largely absent and Ed Balls is eager not to become the fall guy across the PLP, and the unions, as the man who killed their policy dreams.

This is the essential context to Labour’s internal machinations, and why it’s interesting that in all of the stories about Labour’s splits in the past week, Douglas Alexander has been the villain of the piece.

Sam Coates’ article last week in the Times, on the clash between Douglas Alexander and John Cruddas, kicked-off much of the current round of briefing and notably described Ed Balls as a “swing voter” in the battles between Alexander and Cruddas.

Yet the reality is that the major devolution reforms being considered by Cruddas would require the next Labour chancellor to relinquish control over large swathes of spending to local authorities and communities, while he remained politically accountable for headline numbers on the deficit and debt and open to attack for mismanagement if there were any spending farragoes by the devolved budget holders.

Does this sound like the type of thing Ed Balls would be relaxed about?

And since when does John Cruddas get involved in the knife-fight of internecine briefings to the lobby? If this was a Cruddas operation, then it would be the first of its kind in four years.

Arnie Graf’s quixotic odyssey around the nation’s CLPs has been widely derided by almost all of the shadow cabinet. While Labour insiders cite Douglas Alexander as keen to follow a more orthodox approach to getting out the vote, he had wide support in manoeuvring Graf onto the sidelines.

But when the stories broke about Graf being “sacked”, was there any supportive briefing to suggest that others agreed with Alexander. Of course not.

And in the Mail on Sunday’s explosive piece, once again the source of friction was Douglas Alexander.

When someone is so suddenly and consistently identified in briefings as the problem, it always pays to ask cui bono?

In this case the beneficiaries would seem to be the shadow chancellor, and to a lesser extent, the leader.

After all, it’s not as if this movie hasn’t played before.

In November 2007, after Gordon Brown aborted plans for an early election, there was a concerted operation from the Brownite inner sanctum, in which Ed Balls was primus inter pares, to lay the blame for the disaster at others’ door.

At the time, those “others” happened to be Douglas Alexander and Spencer Livermore. The level of briefing in 2007 was such that Spencer Livermore felt compelled to leave Number 10 and all the while, Labour’s leader then, as now, remained silent, when the knives went in.

It seems too much of a coincidence that Douglas Alexander’s main ally in Labour’s 2014 general election set-up is once again, none other than Spencer Livermore.

Suddenly, it’s all beginning to feel rather familiar.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut

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9 Responses to “With Douglas Alexander in the firing line, cui bono?”

  1. Ex Labour says:

    Wee Dougie is taking all the flack but let’s be honest and call it like it is. Miliband is the root cause of all the current backstabbing. Existing in his Zen-like state he sent a team off to think big thoughts on policy and sent his American guru to do missionary work across the UK at great expense to the party and with no purpose or results.

    Obviously the policies that have come back are really pie in the sky wish lists and are being vetoed by Wee Dougie and Balls as they are probably vote losers.

    With the rate of increase in salaries rising the cost of living crisis is sounding hollow. Before everyone comes back at me, I am of course talking about for those people who work.

  2. Tafia says:

    For Ed Balls, whose wife Yvette Cooper is clear favourite for the leadership if there is a vacancy in 2015,

    One thing I will guarentee – should Labour lose in 2015 and she end up as leader then they will lose even more badly in 2020.

    She is about as marketable as herpes and twice the irritant.

  3. swatantra says:

    I’ve never quite understood why we get Dougie Alexander as Election Supremo and the Tories get George Osborne. Surely the person in charge of the vital job of Planning the Election should be a professional? And someone who knows their way about the Media, and is a man of the people and relaxed. Dougie was on Agenda and you could justy imagine he’d just stepped out of the Fortnum and Mason Catalogue.WE need someone like say Peter Mandelson?

  4. Danny says:

    All this article does is feed the Tories.

    If we all present a united front to the press we can win. Its doesn’t matter about policy, economics or infighting, we must kick the tories out they are the nasty party.

    We can right the ship by bleeding the rich.

  5. Frederick James says:

    “We can right the ship by bleeding the rich”

    There we have it, ladies and gentlemen, the authentic voice of asinine tribal Labour. And where, Danny, will the magic money come from if the rich decline your tempting proposal, take their money and leave?

  6. Danny says:


    We can raid the tax havens, empty the off shore troughs and level the field. This is the radical Labour we want. Why should the bankers and the rich get paid so much.

    We need proper real socialism, that’s a united party lined up behind Ed walking into downing street in 2015 we an agenda for the poor. The Tories are active in keeping the poor, poor, they will pro-actively work to destroy jobs and keep people down. It’s the reason the Tory party exist that’s why they are called the nasty party.

    Did you know that all the stuff Cameron says in the press is a front? In the background they have the civil service beavering away working against the real people of this country.

  7. John Woods says:

    It is time for Ed Miliband to nail his colours to the mast. I cannot imagine he does not have enough analysis of how to define policies that will win the next election and if anyone stands in the way, know how to show them the door. That is particularly true of Ed Balls who should be wiping the floor with George Osborne but is struggling to get his voice heard. Time also for members of the shadow cabinet to be making the running in the country, or is that the problem, that no one can decide what the policies are?

  8. Allan says:

    And there are some of us who have seen this movie more than once. There are some people who saw Alexanders’ sister vacate her post as “Scottish” Labour leader thanks to a story about party donations.

    For people looking for a moral, one look at the current, parleous, state of “Scottish” Labour will see that. For all that Wendy Alexander had her own leadership issues, “Scottish” Labour have never been at the races since Alexander’s removal as leader.

  9. uglyfatbloke says:

    Wendy had to go because she was prepared to have a referendum for no better reason that that is what the electorate wanted…..democracy and all that.
    Wendy was a poor performer in the chamber , but she is an intelligent and practical person, so who do we get in her place? Johann Lamont, who is an even worse performer than Wendy and not as clever or practical. Can you imagine Wendy telling the country that Scottish people are not ‘genetically programmed’ to make political decisions? Of course not. Can you imagine Lamont doing that? No, because you don’t need to imagine it, you can see it on iplayer.

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