Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour’s got talent

It finally happened. As predicted here, after being delayed by Syria and conference, it was politically exposed, middle-aged male former ministers who found themselves shunted from the shadow cabinet. This was seen as a cull of Blairites, but then the new people started doing more than walking down the street looking fresh-faced, and what they said proved, well, moderate, voter-friendly, even, whisper it, Blairite.

This is a different sort of centrism, however. In Ed Miliband’s Labour party you can be a moderate Labour politician, sceptical of high taxes, tough on social security spending and opposed to monopoly provision of public services, as long as you couch it differently. You have to talk about community, the meaningful life, and the limits of the market. So Labour’s telegenic next big things, like Tristram Hunt, Rachel Reeves, Chuka Umunna, Emma Reynolds and  Gloria De Piero, are trying to redefine what it is to be a Labour ‘moderate’ while staying entirely loyal to Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ project.

One thing is lacking from these pitches, though:  a clearly identifiable political agenda. Yes, we hear much about the need for innovation policy or turning free schools into academies, but Labour’s new moderates do not yet have a common political project to link these ideas. Apart from anything else, the loyalty required for promotion also requires total commitment to One Nation. Indeed, many of these names are forming a new One Nation group of MPs, which may prove a mistake, as it will alienate those who do not feel part of their shiny, happy, promotion-friendly club.

So how can Labour’s X-Factor hopefuls prove themselves to be truly exceptional talents? For that, they could do worse than to  turn to two of Labour’s young shadow ministers who were not promoted in the reshuffle but who have made a big policy impact. Gregg McClymont, the shadow pensions minister, is tackling one of the toughest policy portfolios, and is quietly developing an agenda that both challenges the vested interests of the big pension funds but, crucially, does so by pushing concrete, consumer-friendly, pro-market reforms. The critique is that the market is being prevented from working for the many by the few who are in a position to manipulate it. The policy challenge, therefore, is to identify interventions to make markets work better for the many, by limiting the power of the dominant few. At the same time, Liz Kendall is using her social care portfolio to set out principles for public service reform in an era of limited budgets. Strictly speaking, her efforts are focused only on health, but it is easy to see the potential for the ideas to be applied more widely.

For your insider this agenda represents a political opportunity that could be grabbed widely, whether by Hunt using his support for academies to assault both Michael Gove’s free-for-all and quiet acceptance of low standards in schools, or finding ways to deliver jobs and employment beyond monolithic state provision, or perhaps, most crucially of all, in housing. If Labour’s next generation can build these themes together, they might have a common agenda that both fleshes out One Nation and provides them with their own take on the change Britain needs.

Mystery dance

One of the problems with reshuffles is that some moves leave you wondering exactly what the people involved have done. So it was with the job-swap of Maria Eagle and Mary Creagh, two shadow ministers who can claim to have done a pretty good job fighting their corner on difficult territory. Eagle, indeed, managed to pull off the feat of uniting both Progress and Aslef behind her emerging agenda on bringing some of the intercity mainline services back into public ownership.

While neither Creagh nor Eagle should be disappointed with their new jobs, given that the policy emphasis remains the same, you do have to wonder what required their moves. As with Stephen Twigg, there is a slight sense that Eagle, at least, was the victim of political tensions created elsewhere. Both Twigg and Eagle also seem to have been rather strangely rewarded for their unstinting public and private loyalty to Miliband.

Mr Brown’s boys

While the promotion of voter-friendly fresh faces was clearly intended to be the story of Labour’s reshuffle, perhaps even more significant was the leader’s decision about who would be running the general election campaign. Step forward Douglas Alexander, whose work on Syria has returned him to favour in Miliband’s office, despite some rocky moments in the past.

The new general election coordinator brings with him Spencer Livermore, who worked closely with both Alexander and Miliband before getting the black spot from Gordon Brown after ‘the election that never was’. Livermore’s treatment was brutal, even by those standards. He arrived at work one day to find someone else in his office.

Working alongside Alexander and Livermore will be Michael Dugher, supported by Jonathan Ashworth, also both veterans of Brown’s No 10, who are intended to give the cerebral Alexander and Livermore cutting edge. Fellow Brown advisers Stewart Wood and Greg Beales provide strategic and policy ammunition.

This line-up is undeniably talented, but there are challenges. Both Alexander and Dugher wanted the general election job, and now have authority over different bits of the campaign, while those personally close to the leader have their own paths to power. Nor was the experience of working for Brown always entirely comradely. As with many reunions, getting the old gang together might expose old tensions. That will need to be watched, especially if the polls tighten.

The other criticism is that the election team is a little monocultural. If you are not a Brown-era backroom boy, there is little room for you in the new team. So look for some of Labour’s strong women to demand their own voice in election planning, while those left outside watch uncomfortably. And, despite the presence of Arnie Graf, supporters of the new-style community organising agenda fear they do not have an obvious voice in the campaign team.


Cartoon: Adrian Teal

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1 comment

  • “The critique is that the market is being prevented from working for the many by the few who are in a position to manipulate it.”

    Ah yes, if only the market was left to work its magic free from every form of interference – then we would be assured of heaven on earth.

    And all flowers will blossom at midnight. And that which has been drained will be replenished. And that which has been put asunder will be rendered unto perfection.

    Thank goodness for the entertainment provided by market-utopians. Let’s hope they keep us amused through the long winter nights.

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