Being a shadow minister can be a miserable job. First, you have to make a splash, or people will call you lazy. The best way to make a splash is to announce exciting new things, preferably while wearing a fetching hi-visibility hardhat on a building site, or after visiting some charming preschoolers in one of the socially crunchy inner London boroughs.
Unfortunately, even in hi-vis you cannot announce things that will cost money, because you do not get to decide that. Worse, if you decide to make a splash by announcing a lot of things that do not cost money, it will not be long before the whispers about you being trivial or a lightweight start making their way round the Commons.
You can always silence those whispers by announcing something that is worthwhile, cheap but also internally controversial, showing you are not afraid to take risks, challenge preconceptions and make a stand on a big issue. Can you think of a Labour shadow minister in the days of yore (before 1994) who made their reputation that way? Your insider can.
However, this is not the mid-1990s, and anything that smacks of bashing Labour’s own base will not get far with today’s advocates of a 40 per cent strategy. We need those voters, the horn-rimmed wonks cry, putting a black sharpie line through your edgy policy speech.
So, how to combine popular concerns with limited budgets, a need for action with a stress on internal unity?
One of the fastest-rising stars in the Labour firmament has given us a fantastic guide to finding the sweet spot. First, shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt announced a plan for licensing teachers to ensure they meet high professional standards, a measure that does not cost much money, but speaks to parents’ longing for higher standards and better teachers, while sounding like a poke at the educational establishment (for which read the National Union of Teachers).
Yet, by making the professionalism of teachers a key part of his argument against the current staffing of free schools, Hunt also made it hard for the teaching unions to object to a plan that effectively would force free schools to hire fully qualified teachers only.
So instead of being a straightforward ‘Labour bashes workshy teachers’ story, he could talk of a more ‘One Nation’ approach – higher standards for teachers and more accountability for schools.
Sweet spot found, the ball raced away to the boundary to general applause. Bravo, sir.
The Sun shines on Reeves
Speaking of announcements that search for the sweet spot, your insider was rather amused by the way leftish bloggers and columnists were outraged by how shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves’ perfectly sensible welfare sanctions announcement was covered in the Sun.
At first there was fury that a Labour figure would talk of being tough on welfare. Then, when Reeves denied the essence of the story, ire turned on the Sun, for committing the heinous crime of writing up a story that, er, was very favourable to the Labour party.
So, for the hard of thinking, let the insider channel her inner Sherlock and reconstruct what went down. Once you eliminate the impossible, this is what remains:
Stage One: Labour source phones up Sun, asks to meet for a drink.
Stage Two: Source tells Sun reporter, ‘We’re going to promise something pretty tough on welfare sanctions on Monday – that will surprise you.’ The hack’s eyes glint, and off he toddles to file.
Stage Three: Back at desk, it dawns on reporter that it is a bit unclear what the ‘something tough is’, beyond a mention of contribution. So clippings are consulted and the story is written up as a vague ‘Labour gets tough on dole’ story.
Stage Four: Horror and dismay on the left.
Stage Five: Reeves points out that the things she is proposing are not the ones from the clips. Sun loudly abused.
Stage Six: Reeves proposes a different, but also tough, approach to the young unemployed – reduced eligibility for benefits if not possessing or improving basic skills. All agree this is pretty good stuff.
So, everyone is happy. Except perhaps for the political editor of the Sun, who got used as a human piñata for being nice about us for once. Still, he does not matter any more, as we all know.
Ed on Ed-ism?
Tensions between leaders and chancellors are the warp and weft of British politics. So the endless rumours of strife between Ed Miliband and Ed Balls and their respective teams should come as no surprise.
The recent spate of stories about Balls’ aggressiveness, his lack of mojo, and his uninterest in his leader’s passion for a different sort of capitalism does rankle, however, with the shadow chancellor’s team, despite the fact that they have been very restrained in their responses to briefings against their man.
There are those around Balls who link the appearance of these stories to the emerging influence of Labour’s election coordinator, Douglas Alexander. Those versed in the death agonies of late-era Brownism will know that Alexander and Balls were at loggerheads, and the wounds of six years ago are still fresh in the minds of many of the participants.
However, the past is the past, and your insider notes that a creative rivalry between the two former allies might be useful for the party leader, who can selectively ignore both the criticisms of his finance chief and their possible source, then step in to reassure Balls that he is safe as shadow chancellor, while at the same time securing his loyalty by refusing to guarantee him the job in a Labour government.
Smart politics – as long as Balls is not pushed too far.
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