The quiet rise of Michael Dugher

Do you know Michael Dugher? If not, you will be hearing more from him soon. Doncaster-born and a proudly working-class Nottingham Forest fan, the Barnsley East MP has now added the role of Labour’s vice-chair for communications to his shadow cabinet responsibilities.

Perhaps this is a simple case of matching a good talent to an important job, as Dugher served as Gordon Brown’s spokesman in government, building a reputation as a combative voice for the then Labour leader, before doing an effective spell as Ed Miliband’s parliamentary private secretary.

Yet in other ways Dugher is a surprising candidate for rapid promotion in the Miliband era. He was not one of Miliband’s early supporters, like other fast-risers Rachel Reeves or Chuka Umunna. Nor was he enormously successful with his colleagues as a new MP, failing to get elected to the defence select committee.

Dugher might even be forgiven for remembering that if a few votes had gone the other way in Doncaster in 2005, when the two were contesting the selection, he might now be appointing Miliband to a deputy chairmanship, not the other way round.

So why has Dugher prospered? The main reason is simple: he is effective, hard-working and practical. In the leader’s office, which is sometimes accused of preferring discussions to decisions, Dugher’s ability to drive a news story forward, to keep the focus of criticism on the inadequacies of the government and keep examples practical, relevant to voters and in plain language, is needed and appreciated.

Some say there is another element to his most recent step up. It is occasionally whispered that Labour deputy chair Tom Watson finds his campaigns for the abused and the hacked reduces the time he has for the grind of day-to-day politics. No one minds this, because Watson is both a force of nature and an asset to party campaigns. However, there is always a need for a forceful political voice directing media traffic at party HQ, someone that both Watson and Miliband can trust completely.

Dugher fits that role perfectly, and will give the Labour communications team a vital voice in debates in shadow cabinet and the leader’s inner circle.

Euro trouble

Labour’s decision to join Tory Eurosceptics to defeat the government over the next round of European budget negotiations exposed unresolved faultlines in Labour politics.

It is not the decision to vote against the government itself that drives the tension – most Labour MPs understand it would have been odd for the party to give the Tories a free pass on any Euro-budget increase. On top of that, pro-Europeans know Labour can come to the rescue of moderate Euro-engagement, with David Cameron as human shield.

No, what has caused a ripple of dismay is where all this goes in the end. Back in the Maastricht era, it was pretty clear what Labour wanted to achieve – it wanted Europe, but a ‘social Europe’.

There is little sign of such overarching pro-Europeanism today. The increasingly dominant currents in Labour thinking combine the tribunes of the Labour working class, like Andy Burnham and Jon Cruddas, who evoke distaste for European idiocy among their constituents, with the decentralising, localist ‘blue Labour’ intellectuals who see Europe as the epitome of the deracinated transnational elites they abhor.

These groups have willing allies in the Euro-realists of the Brown school, who do not object much to the free movement of labour and capital, but find the incessant summitry and haggling of European politics tedious, ineffectual and ludicrous.

Unfortunately, any European reform agenda would require compromises, including giving up treasured exemptions and rebates. Any future sceptically tinged Labour government would be faced with a similar dilemma. If you cannot get what you want without giving up something you really need, what do you do next?

Add a referendum into the mix, and things get combustible. You could end up with Labour leading a referendum to keep Britain in a European Union we have failed to reform. This is the point made by the embattled pro-Europeans, who are reduced to arguing that in order to succeed in the UK, we need Europe to succeed. That means sucking up the pain of European cooperation to achieve important common aims. Sadly, selling unpopular necessities is rarely an attractive route for an opposition.

By-election bonuses

As we celebrate Andy Sawford’s success in Corby, one of the stranger patterns of this parliament has been the sheer number of by-elections in Labour-held seats. Sawford, Stephen Doughty and Lucy Powell have now joined the Labour benches, where they will replace Debbie Abrahams, Jonathan Ashworth, Dan Jarvis, Seema Malhotra and Iain McKenzie as the newest of parliamentary newbies.

Three more by-elections follow immediately. All three selections show Labour members favouring candidates who have been proven in their own communities and the real world, with Steve Reed, leader of Lambeth council, chosen in Croydon North and former councillor and college governor Andy Macdonald getting the nod in Middlesbrough.

Oddly, Reed and Macdonald both narrowly missed out on selection in 2010 in more marginal seats nearby, and now find themselves as candidates for what are normally rock-solid Labour seats. Funny how life turns out.

Real life in Rotherham

But it is in Rotherham where the real drama was, with a selection meeting apparently unhappy at the lack of local choice on offer, despite the new candidate, Sarah Champion, running a local hospice, which is valuable real life experience. Mind you, your insider thinks Rotherham had two outstanding candidates to choose from in hospice manager Champion and former wing commander Sophy Gardner. That is not how things used to get done. In the old days, it would be one party HQ thoroughbred and three lame horses.

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Cartoon: Adrian Teal

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