Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Ed at the chessboard

It is summer, and rumours of reshuffles float gently on the Westminster breeze.  Over the last year, talking to those around Ed Miliband, a quiet theme has emerged. The shadow cabinet has not been sharing enough of the burden of creating a vision of ‘One Nation’ Labour. Too much has been left to Miliband himself. There has not been enough of a supportive chorus of Labour voices.

This is seen a bit differently in the shadow cabinet’s cheap seats. With various policy reviews ongoing and no ability to make spending commitments, it is hard to make a big pitch for attention without arousing ire or spending money. Be that as it may, it is clear that Labour’s leader wants a frontbench team that is more energetic, more aggressive and looks more in touch with Britain.

In practice, that means wanting to promote some of the impressive performers in Labour’s middle tier, especially from the large brigade of young, smart women. The names most often mentioned are Rachel Reeves, Liz Kendall, Stella Creasy and Luciana Berger.

Then there are those whose drive and organisational skills will mean wider recognition. Michael Dugher fits here. Finally, you might see recognition for those who embody ‘One Nation’. Dan Jarvis, Gloria De Piero, Chi Onwurah and Lisa Nandy are communicators, but not ‘stereotypical politicians’.

However, Miliband’s problem is not so much who to promote, but who to cut loose. There have been several reports of tensions inside the shadow cabinet, but both internal and external pressures make a cull difficult. Get rid of (usually misnamed) Blairites, for example, and it will be read as a shift to the left, unless people of the calibre of Alistair Darling or Pat McFadden return. Those close to Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper have performed well and have many allies in the parliamentary Labour party.

So who is most at risk? Let me put it this way. If your insider was a middle-aged, middle-ranking shadow cabinet minister, especially a man, who had already served in government, and whose departure would not cause great wails from the commentariat, then a certain nervousness would cast a pall over my usual sunny disposition.

Power cuts at Unite

A couple of years ago, a plugged-in leftwinger chatted to your insider about Unite’s internal politics. Inevitably, there was a tour d’horizon of left factions, splinter groups and electoral pacts. Finally, we turned to how all of this would affect Unite’s political strategy.

The lefty spoke of a struggle for control of the union’s political direction between Andrew Murray, the leftwing chief of staff to Len McCluskey, and Steve Hart, the union’s political director. Who will win, asked your humble correspondent. ‘Oh, always bet on a Stalinist against a Trot’, came the laughing reply. He is no Trot, but last month Hart got the union equivalent of the icepick, being placed on ‘special projects’, with a McCluskey ally, Jennie Formby, taking his place.

Hart’s departure had been coming for a while, I am told. McCluskey has long been unhappy with the way his political strategy has been delivered, complaining that not enough Unite members had been recruited into the party, not enough left candidates selected. The recently re-elected general secretary had even got another of his executive team in to ‘advise’ Hart, while long-serving union officials like Cath Speight chose to depart.

It is against that background that the various mis-steps Unite has made in selections should be seen; the Unite political team were desperate to please their boss, and, in pushing their strategy a bit too hard, embarrassed him. But there is more to it than just organisational frustration, or internal faction struggles.

There is a real question among the union left about what it has gained from its unstinting support of the Labour leader, compared to devoting resources to changing the national conversation through initiatives like the ‘People’s Assembly’ and the thinktank Class.

A rupture would be damaging, so union leaders praise Miliband’s commitments on social security and living wages while staying silent about spending commitments. Yet they know that this represents a retreat, as they were able to stop Labour following up on a similar commitment last year.

The key card left to play comes when the policy review led by Jon Cruddas comes to the National Policy Forum. There are big decisions to be made about how hard to push, and the departure of Hart is a sign that Unite, at least, might well push a lot harder than it has been.

Going, going, gong

Your insider has always been an admirer of the defter, less obvious touches in politics, the little things that make a big difference to the spirit of the party. So it was with admiration that he read the Queen’s birthday honours list, which had the work of the leader’s office running through it.

Generations of Labour staff will be delighted that Carol Linforth, who runs Labour’s conference and events team, and Ian Reilly, who runs the West Midlands, got MBEs, while Tony Robinson and Barnsley council leader Steve Houghton got knighthoods.

This is not entirely new. At the last honours list Michael Cashman got a CBE, and Unison’s Norma Stephenson an OBE, while Tony Blair’s agent, John Burton, won an MBE.

These are nice political gestures from Miliband’s office, showing that the party leadership cares about the whole Labour family, even when there are not many peerages to announce (though, speaking of peers, a shortlist will be announced shortly, I am told, with some impressive names).

Mind you, seeing the NEC’s and the Grassroots Alliance’s Ann Black getting an OBE did cause a gentle smile. The whole Labour party seems to have come to terms with honours, and a good thing too. Congratulations, Ann, and everyone else going to the palace.


Cartoon: Adrian Teal

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