The battle for Miliband’s soul

A battle is being waged by the thinkers of Labour’s soft left. The likes of Neal Lawson, John Harris, David Clark, Polly Toynbee and Jackie Ashley, who provided the dissenting spur and ideological passion behind Ed Miliband’s leadership bid, fear they may be losing the ear of the leadership.

When you read of calls for bravery; of the importance of holding your nerve; for zen socialism; or free-thinking radical solutions – what is meant is ‘stay out of the grasp of Balls’ and ‘steer clear of the Blairites’. The disparate intelligentsia of the centre-left are firing broadsides from broadsheets in the hope Miliband will keep the faith.

These heterodox thinkers long for the Miliband who said New Labour was no more, attacked Murdoch, attended protests and channelled the British indignados of ‘Occupy London’. This is the politics they cherish, and it seemed for once that they were winning. Now they fear a bruised leader is edging into the grasp of those close to Ed Balls, or, worse, Tony Blair. The thuggish organisers, the gimlet-eyed ex-union men are back running things.
Miliband must be supported, for he is their man, but he must also be dissuaded from reverting to type as he emphasises the need for credibility, deficit reduction, and the politics of the centre.

So Lawson takes aim at ‘White Flag Labour’, Toynbee writes of how the new world is just around the corner if only Labour would be braver, Ashley says that a pledge to accept cuts means nothing and that the Blairites must shush.

Inevitably, this becomes riddled with contortion. Who to blame for Miliband’s new chilly realism? Targets are proferred: Blairite zombies? Brownite relics? Over-cautious advisers? The bias of the media? The one person they cannot blame is the one at the top, even if he is the one making the decisions.

Your insider does not think this tense loyalty is tenable. If the leader’s office keeps on talking credibility, we will be treated to a grand columnist or thinktank type telling us that Miliband has reverted to the bad old trimming ways of Labour’s past, that he has abandoned his route to the party in search of power. Of course, no hint will there be that leftwing thinkers often retreat to crying ‘betrayal’ when Labour tries to find common ground with the electorate.

Don’t blame me, I’m part of the union

So, a baptism of fire for Johann Lamont. David Cameron tries to flush Alex Salmond out of his referendum hidey-hole by agreeing to let Scotland vote on independence, to which Salmond responds by making the issue about English Tories telling Scotland what to do.

As Labour’s Alistair Darling and Jim Murphy jump into the debate, and Salmond, Nick Clegg, Ming Campbell and Michael Moore trade increasingly complex barbs about process, the danger is that Scotland’s new Labour leader finds herself obscured by bolshie men.

What’s more, Lamont is burdened by the fact that there are those in the Labour party who harbour doubts about her. Mischievous sorts gossip of Labour bigwigs voting for Lamont because she will be easier to get rid of in a few years’ time.

However, Lamont has a plan. She has made a canny press hire in ex–Daily Record political editor Paul Sinclair, which should give her a direct line to most Scottish political correspondents, and she plans to let Salmond and the other big boys fight themselves to exhaustion on process, so she can be the voice of the voter who wants to settle independence and get on with what really matters – getting the economy growing, increasing the number of jobs and cutting crime.

Will it work? Your insider cannot tell you that. But it is, at least, a strategy, and Labour in Scotland has had few enough of those recently.

Stand again, Livingstone

Ken Livingstone might be standing for mayor of London, but he’s got a back-up plan if that doesn’t work out. He is standing again for Labour’s National Executive Committee as the most recognisable face of the leftwing ‘Grassroots Alliance’.

Unkind observers might suggest that with a mayoral election to stand in, Livingstone might have other priorities than seeking CLP nominations, but they fail to see what wily old  Livingstone sees. A seat on the NEC is worth a dozen shadow cabinet jobs.

Don’t believe me? The shadow cabinet have power over absolutely nothing. They don’t even decide their own media profile. (Newsflash: If your surname is  not Reeves or Umunna, you’re not getting on the telly).

Compare  members of the NEC, who have their own democratic mandates, and are responsible for selections, appointments, policy processes and – most important of all – budgets. If you are on the NEC, the leader cannot sack you, while an MP can be abruptly dispatched to irrelevance. Can you imagine a shadow cabinet minister behaving as Livingstone did in Tower Hamlets and getting away with it?

If Livingstone loses in May, being on the NEC will stop him being sent to political Siberia. It gives him strong cards to play on the future of the Labour party in London, able to prevent unfriendly appointments, promote allies and ensure London Labour stays true to his legacy.

That is why it is worth him exposing himself to charges of not being committed to the London race, and to Tory accusations that he has already given up. Whether Labour should indulge that aim is another matter entirely.

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Cartoon: Adrian Teal

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