So, after a year, that was it. Ed Miliband’s big speech. Your humble insider thought he delivered it OK, actually, nervous pause for approval at precisely the wrong moment aside. That no one saw an obvious Blair-baiting clap-trap (or in this case boo-trap) indicates some rehearsal and revision issues inside Team Ed, a situation which various staffers have been urging Miliband to correct.
Miliband is generally smarter and more thoughtful than the workaday wordmanglers who seek to serve as his spin doctors of rhetoric. At the same time, he is laudably open to many different contributions from other bright coves. Thus, after the wonk-on-wonk political struggles are resolved, leaving the odd Fabian twitching on the floor, there still remains a detritus of odd phrasings, strange rhythms and intertwined themes to excise.
On a good day these are lost in the power of the argument. On a bad one, they eclipse the argument. So it was with comparing the March demonstrators with Martin Luther King, and again with the booing of the former prime minister.
Still, that aside, it was delivered well, and certainly better than the woeful efforts of the prime minister and his pet Liberal Democrat. As for content? Well, that goes beyond the realms of which your humble insider can comment.
But you know all about the speech, don’t you? So let’s look now at the two events that bookended the conference season for Labour, and which revealed the surprising strengths and odd weaknesses of our leader.
The first was Refounding Labour, where after proposing a strong brew of reforms, Miliband progressively watered them down to very weak tea indeed. He was permitted to claim victory, but no one was fooled. No change in union votes at conference, a token recognition of non-members’ participation in the electoral college, and a firm rejection of ideas like primaries.
A setback, and one driven by the fact that the Labour leader does not control the NEC, as noted in this column before, and had not sought to make these reforms a test of his leadership. Faced with a fight he might lose with allies he might need, Miliband backed off gracefully. Weak, you might think.
But then, look at the reshuffle. Strong. Miliband’s star people given the big jobs, no alternative patronage network indulged or allowed. Beyond that, those who have truly impressed Miliband promoted, whatever their ideological background, showing an openness to all. Miliband’s reshuffles have been marked by firmness and decisiveness.
This is important, because shadow ministerial jobs are the only power a Labour leader can freely wield. Your insider cannot understand why MPs yearn to be shadow minister for tedium and complexity, but yearn they do, for there is not a politician alive who does not see themselves lounging on the frontbench, appearing in TV studios and making speeches from platforms.
Miliband knows these longings, and has used his patronage to build a team that will be hungry for the fight, loyal to him, lauded by journalists, and even, I hesitate to say, a little bit glam.
The only danger? Among those who have departed are people who could, if they chose, become lightning conductors for dissatisfaction.
Miliband knows that no assault on his leadership can succeed, because he broadly has the support of the party and the unions. So he can offer patronage to those he feels he needs.
So this, then, is Miliband’s leadership. Half strongman, half stripling. The only question is: which will the voters see?
Harriet the black belt
Let us take a moment to salute Harriet Harman. Whatever the views of readers of this column, there is no doubt she is the most effective operator in the modern Labour party, on her chosen ground. Harman has delivered for Labour women in a truly remarkable way. She has got them into parliament in greater numbers, got women in shadow ministries in greater numbers, and now got women in the leadership team in perpetuity.
This last achievement is a fantastic example of Harman’s indefatigability. Refounding Labour agreed a complex backroom deal about gender balance in the leadership, designed to buy the leadership the time to develop a solution that would not create a bizarre situation where Miliband was asked to resign because Harman had been replaced by Chuka Umunna.
It was a complex phrasing that was deliberately opaque, because a lot of people felt gender balance in the leadership was a pretty stupid idea but did not want to go out and say so. So they tried to bury it in complexities and hedge it about with caveats. Harman, however, appeared to agree to all these diversions, then just went ahead and publicly declared victory anyway, daring anyone to gainsay her. They did not dare, and so the final deal will be much, much closer to what Harman wanted than was intended. It was political judo of the highest order, and will never get the recognition of brilliance it deserves.
Marx told us that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. The New Statesman seems to be doing its best to prove this adage. A few years back, political editor Martin Bright was allegedly removed from post for crossing Gordon Brown one time too many. Now, uber-blogger Dan Hodges claims that he has quit the Staggers, the New Statesman’s blog, because, fearful of the wrath of Miliband’s communications chief, Tom Baldwin the mighty, they spiked one of his regular Mili-busting blogs.
Thankfully, this is one of those rows that will turn out well for all concerned. Hodges will find a gig at a bigger mag, the Staggers will return to its customary righteous somnolence, while Miliband’s press people will get an enviable reputation for toughness.
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