Thursday, 16 June 2011

Labour’s faerie weekend

It was a strange Midsummer Night’s Dream weekend. There seemed to be dark shadows of plots in every corner. The “Balls papers” of leaked memos reminded us that no-one plots quite like the Brownites; the ghost of David Miliband’s never-uttered leadership acceptance speech was rather unhelpfully leaked to the press, neatly exhuming the Miliband-fratricide stories. And the Labour body politic ended up starting the week a little jittery.

So jittery, in fact, that by Tuesday, and after Ed Miliband had made rather a good fist of pulling it all back together, our esteemed Uncut columnist, Dan Hodges, was still being accused of disloyalty for complimenting the party leader(work that one out if you will). I put it down to the faeries.

But through all this night gloom, we started to see some solid rays of realism gleaming through, in Ed’s Monday speech to the Coin Street neighbourhood centre in London. He even managed, with some success, to put down Sky’sJohn Craig for asking stupid questions.

Admittedly, Ed may have sent out a slightly dodgy, populist message on executive pay, on which he will probably struggle in practice to find a workable policy. But that moot point nevertheless acted both to bolster the overall message of being fair across society from top to bottom, and as a fig-leaf for his most controversial message, that of cracking down on benefit fraud. Interestingly, as the Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow observed, it is the exact same fairness-top-to-bottom idea which had appeared in his brother’s leaked speech at the weekend. To cap it all, and throw the policy wonks a bone, he has suggested the reintroduction of the concept of contribution to welfare, a principle which may yet yield a solid and workable policy distinct from the Tories. More than just a good day for Ed, then: many are suggesting that it is the start of a real change of direction.

But perhaps the most telling of the signals of perceived change of attitude almost passed unnoticed in all of this. The Durham miners’ gala, during the leadership election, found David Miliband making the naïve error of thinking that his predecessors had made unnecessary enemies by eschewing the miners’ gala during the previous sixteen years. And Ed Miliband repeated the same, on the same day
as his never-to-be-forgotten appearance at the March 26 demo. Ah, the arrogance of youth: but both Milibands made a wrong call.

Blair and Brown were experienced enough to know the Gala would be a media disaster for them. So, not wanting to repeat the exquisite train-wreck of that self-same March demo, where Ed was filmed speaking against a backdrop of union regalia with a split-screen to marchers smashing windows in Oxford Street, he decided on Tuesday that compounding this image by attending – especially after a long absence and given union hegemony in party funding – may not be all that helpful to his bid to be prime-minister-in-waiting.

Thank. God. For. That.

No, we should not “worship at the altar of spin” or become obsessed by media froth. But this? This is basic. Avoiding media disasters – is essential to, well, not coming across as an amateur. Sorry, but it is. And for those who think this insulting to unions, get real. Get the pictures wrong, and you think the story will be our policy? Do me a favour.

So, all in all, should we be pleased? Yes, without a doubt. What was of overriding importance was that, on welfare, Ed finally showed that he is prepared to challenge conventional wisdom in his own party (sorry, but that modest statement on levels of immigration, coming after Cameron’s speech on the subject, doesn’t count).

The words “my party must change”, uttered to the sound of light-bulbs going on in right-thinking households all over the country, are indescribably important. He now just needs to repeat them about a hundred times in every speech, on every platform.

A ray of sunlight seems to have made its way through the crazy, mixed-up nocturnal dream we have been living. But dawn has not yet broken.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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