Wednesday, 12 October 2011

To boldly go... Ed's relationship with enterprise

It’s been an eventful couple of weeks. So, the ship has now set a course and we’ve done the crew changeover. It may be a course that not everyone’s happy with, but let’s face it: they never are, are they? And at least there is a course. The Tory conference wasn’t a failure, but it wasn’t exactly a runaway success, either: what with Teresa May’s cats and Cameron’s dogs, it seemed sometimes that it was raining very hard indeed last week. And the mess now being caused by Liam Fox has helped us. So let’s be thankful for small mercies and look to the future.

In a year’s time, we’ll be looking to the completion of the policy review. We will be practically at the electoral midpoint, and will know for sure whether regaining the London mayoralty was a real possibility or a pipe-dream (the tea-leaves, admittedly, do not look good on this one). We will then be able to start setting broad policy lines in serious, and start long-term planning for the next election. Things aren’t so bad, right?

This, at least, seems to be more or less what conventional wisdom in the party is saying right now. Full speed ahead, we’re on our way. The question is, of course: is this a realistic assessment of where we are? Casting an eye over the three major political developments over the last two weeks – not forgetting the euro crisis, which is likely to have a further, substantial impact on everything – it doesn’t look it. We know that a deliberate step-change has been made as regards the riskiness of the strategy; but it’s useful to look at just how much.

First, the Leader’s speech. The jury is still out as to how it was received in the country – ignored is probably closest to the truth, as Peter Watt fairly notes about most conference speeches – but the media generally panned it (sorry, Peter Oborne does not count). There may even have been a negative impact on personal poll ratings (although, as Political Betting’s Mike Smithson rightly points out, conference week polls are notoriously unreliable. We shall see).

Cameron’s was a lack-lustre speech. But it had two advantages: it made no claims to be game-changing, and it contained serious policy meat. Most importantly, it was prime ministerial. Even if we add, generously, the phrase “all other things being equal”, Prime Minister generally trumps Leader of the Opposition, unless the government is in serious trouble, which it is not. In any event, if (a) your opponents think that the story of conference season is your speech; (b) that angle gets traction in the media; and (c) you spend several days rebutting that story; then, independent of the politics of the speech, something has not gone well.

Second, the Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. The good news is that lots of sensible, bright people have been promoted. Ed Miliband has, to his great credit, learned a lesson from Brown, who often tried to limit the ambitions of those who differed from his worldview, irrespective of talent. So the promotions come from across the political spectrum. The bad news is that two solid elder statesmen, Denham and Healey, are gone of their own volition before it even started. This should give us pause.

Politicians, like anyone, have to make reasonable personal judgement calls about their future. Contrary to popular opinion, spending more time with their family is often a genuine reason, but it’s rarely the only one. The likelihood is that they either think they are about to be sacked, or they simply feel things are seriously wrong and are not prepared to wait for them to change (Liberal Conspiracy has an interesting theory about this in the case of Denham). In both cases, it looks like the latter, which is telling. On top of this, the loss of these two fifty-somethings makes a total of four senior figures who have voluntarily returned to the back benches in the last year, and means that the Shadow Cabinet now looks greener than ever, already one of its weaknesses. It also, with a total of thirty-one attendees, looks unwieldy.

he third and more unsung reason is deeper and longer-term: party reform. It is fundamental to a party aspiring to government that it has a party machine which has sufficient funds to provide reasonable fighting capacity, which provides the optimum, meritocratically-chosen pool of people to become elected representatives and whose decision-making bodies will not act as a brake on reform. The first is untrue in the case of Labour, the second has not been true for some time and the third is at least highly debatable.

One tragedy of the conference, its importance lost on all but the most nerdy of us, has been the opportunity tragically missed by the Refounding Labour reform programme. Further reform is now realistically off the agenda until the loss of an election and/or a change of leader, and possibly not even then. So there will be no revision of a flawed parliamentary selection process. No reform of the voting structures which encourage leadership and parliamentary candidates to make un-keepable promises to union officials. No real involvement of the wider body of Labour supporters. And that’s before we even get to the ideologically-driven gender quotas in the Shadow Cabinet and on the party leadership ticket. On the positive side, we seem to have achieved a modest improvement in funding arrangements for local parties. That’s a good deal?

In short, we are storing up trouble for the future by not taking the opportunity of a generation. There remains only one, partial way out of the unhappy state the party organisation currently finds itself in, and that’s finding other sources of funding, fast. Which probably means rebuilding bridges with business. And, even if this is achievable, the other problems are still there.

Dan Hodges quotes a Miliband insider as saying, “if you want to win an election in one term you have to take risks, a safety first approach just won’t cut it”. And, returning to the ship metaphor in light of all this, we find it somehow lacking. “Full speed ahead” seems now too measured, too complacent. No, following the “ripping up the rulebook” speech, and its assumption of a considerably more risk-friendly strategy, one is tempted to wrench aside that image and replace it with another: it’s still a ship of sorts, and it’s still full speed ahead, but it’s now like we’ve been transported to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Off we boldly go on a new, high-risk assignment, at a dizzying tangent to our previous course.

So, for those with delicate stomachs, it’s clear that you can forget the steady-as-she-goes. As our current strategy stands, it’s warp factor six, please, Mr. Sulu, and don’t spare the di-lithium crystals.

This post first published at Labour Uncut


  1. Any pensees on Labour's abandonment of human rights in the Protection of freedoms bill?

  2. Oh, I missed have missed that. Got a link?

  3. I suggest anything to do with Alan Johnson (spits) of Hull, he gave the most asinine speech in Commons history (for once I am not exaggerating) will look up links later. Too furious now!


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