Thursday, 10 October 2013

Last Blairite standing: watch out for the sharks

A few days on from the reshuffle of all three parties’ ministerial or Shadow teams, a little perspective on Labour's, or what seems to have universally become known as the “Blairite cull”.

Jim Murphy, who was merely moved on from Defence to a rather less important department, DFID, is now clearly the only remaining outrider in the Shadow Cabinet for any kind of centrist politics, if you accept that the decent Douglas Alexander will continue to do what he has done for the previous decade-and-a-half during the Blair-Brown wars: keep his head down, accommodate the views of the major power players and avoid making enemies. 

As always, there is the story; and the story behind the story.

There is some reasonable case for arguing, as Isabel Hardman did in the Spectator, that the demotion of the four most prominent members of the dwindling Blairite tribe was about loyalty, rather than making a political point. And, in that sense, no-one can really be surprised about the moving on of people who were obviously pulling in a different direction from Miliband’s leadership (as even card-carrying Blairites Tom Harris and Dan Hodges accepted, to their credit).

Most of us would have done the same in his position, and he did at least take the opportunity to get rid of Diane Abbott, to his left, over a similar lack of loyalty on Syria.

However, it seemed also that perhaps too many people were reaching for explanations which were over-complicated; a rush to say that “obviously Blair-Brown politics is over”. But it’s not, because reshuffles are all about signals.

A clear message was sent that a worrying about the political centre was no longer to be tolerated, no matter how Labour squirmed to spin things otherwise. And the idea that that was somehow compensated by the fact that some of the 2010 intake were “a bit Blairite” was risible. As my friend Atul Hatwal pointed out at Labour Uncut:

“bringing in some bright young things from the 2010 parliamentary intake who might once have danced to ‘Things can only get better’ at a Labour students’ conference disco, sometime in the late nineties, hardly constitutes a like for like exchange.”
But perhaps the real answer is that it doesn’t matter that much what the motivation was. What matters is how these moves are perceived, and here there are two blindingly simple negative consequences. 

One, that in removing the part of his Shadow Cabinet most visibly to the right, Miliband has also self-evidently removed the part most in tune with the views of the public, rather than the party. It is very difficult to argue that this was not the inevitable, final move in the set-piece of moving the party’s centre of gravity to the left, leaving the centre ground Cameron’s for the taking, should he choose to do so.

The obvious political move for Cameron will now be to make warm, liberal noises as the economy recovers and the threat from UKIP starts to recede over the next twelve months, and sell these to his backbenchers as necessary evils to appease (i) the electorate and (ii) his Lib Dem partners. They may not care about the second, but they will about the first, especially those in marginal seats.

The second, which the media seem rather to have missed – again – is that everything the party does over the next six months has to be seen through the prism of the party’s power struggle with the three big unions over party reform.

It has not escaped the notice of the parliamentary lobby that Len McCluskey earlier this year asked for the scalps of three Blairites, of which he has now got two (Murphy and Byrne, Alexander being spared) and has had two more 
(Twigg and Lewis) thrown in for good measure. 

It matters not a jot whether this was done as part of an explicit deal, or whether it was even done with appeasing McCluskey in mind or some noble, higher motive. What matters is that that is how will have been perceived by others. It is also notable that Andy Burnham, clearly out “on manoeuvres” in an interview with the Guardian, was left untouched by the reshuffle.

The message in both these cases was clear: park your tanks on my lawn publicly and I will negotiate. Keep quiet and I will sack you.

But these moves come at a moment where Miliband is attempting to implement the biggest changes to his party since its founding, a move in which McCluskey is a key player, if not the key player. There is a struggle going on for who runs the Labour party, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

When the sharks are circling, it is wise not to show them you’re frightened. And what it is especially ill-advised to give them, as Miliband just has, is a human sacrifice.

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