Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The ‘thud factor’ has arrived

Ed Miliband’s announcement on the referendum question has in equal parts been been overanalysed and misinterpreted. Strategically he has no interest in, and no intention of, holding an in-out vote on the European Union. Why on earth should he? This issue splits the Tories, not Labour. It is totally in his interest to leave the field to them. The aim is to have the Tories seen as the drunk uncle at the wedding – drinking on his own and railing and ranting increasingly incoherently against the modern world.

It is, of course, essentially a hygiene issue – a clearing of the decks in an election year, this longest of election years. But it exemplifies the increasingly ruthless and professional approach of the leader’s office. Eighteen months ago there was concerted pressure on Miliband to talk about policy. It made him look becalmed, but he held his nerve. Oppositions are very vulnerable in policy terms. If they come up with a good idea then the government snaps it up. If they come up with a flawed one it gets shredded by Treasury and mocked in the press. But there was a policy process under way – and it is bearing fruit now, with a range of reports landing. We have now had policy on policing, localism and whole-person care together with speeches on the security services, public service reform, education and welfare. I have not given an exhaustive list of what has been said and published. The point is that in consultant-speak, Labour policy now has ‘thud factor’. You could drop a pile of reports on a desk and hear a crash. This is the ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’ stage of policy development. Labour looks and feels active and thinking.

There are still problems. Too many of the shadow cabinet do not seem to have heard of Chris Leslie’s zero-based review. We have had expensive plans on childcare, and a casual reference in the Oldham report to finding an extra £10bn for care services. For too many portfolio holders ‘Spend to Save’ is a licence to spend. But the Treasury bootboys are coming for them and it will be sorted. The thing to note now is the calm, quiet and impressive way Miliband is preparing not just for an election, but for government.

For the last few years it has become clear that the Sermon on the Mount was mistranscribed. Our Lord actually said ‘the geek shall inherit the earth’. What is also clear is that the geeks are far from meek. This week Chi Onwurah launched a review aimed at updating the last Labour government’s report ‘Digital Britain’. From the response of some of the digerati you would have thought she had promised to return the quill pen to the heart of government.

In truth, digital has been one of this government’s quiet successes. But that is because there has, in reality, been a evolutionary development of policy in this area – and there is a broad cross-party consensus. The Government Digital Service is working – and the disasters like universal credit are a failure of politicians, not IT.

But the successes do not quarantine this area from review. Politics is about priorities and about the allocation of resources to those priorities. The potential synergies between Miliband’s agenda of localism and individual empowerment and IT are obvious. The disruptive, transformative power of digital is one that progressives should celebrate. It gives us the opportunity to shrink the state and grow the individual. Statism and corporatism were the disastrous creations of post-war labourism. Digital is the solvent that can melt away overweening government.

There is a huge opportunity here. That is why a group of Labour activists have formed Labour Digital, launched last week by Martha Lane Fox. Its aim is to create the boldest vision of how a Labour government can tranform all that government does and touches by harnessing digital. To find out more, email:

‘He immatures with age’, was Harold Wilson’s great comment on Tony Benn whose death was announced this morning. Benn was always a polarising figure and politically he got so many of the big calls utterly wrong. Remember his claim that Tony Blair was the worst-ever Labour leader and that modernisers would never win an election? Probably not if your memory is doing its job. Age did not mellow his politics nor did it make them any less wrong. What it did, though, was to make his virtues – and they were many – stand out more clearly.

Benn believed that politics mattered and had faith in the power of ideas. As progressives we can agree, and should envy – and try to emulate – the passion he had all his life. He was, too, a great parliamentarian and an orator you always wanted to hear. How many of the current crop of members of parliament can you say that of? Too few. But above all, he was – and is – an inspiration. In 1976, when Wilson stood down, Benn was a candidate along with James Callaghan, Michael Foot, Tony Crosland, Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins. A generation of titans. Yet today, of them all, only Benn continues to inspire people to enter politics and join the movement. That is a real legacy, and one Benn would have been proud of himself. He always said he wanted his epitaph to be ‘He encouraged us’.


John McTernan is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street and was director of communications for former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. He writes The Last Word column on Progress and tweets @johnmcternan


Photo: Joel Penner

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John McTernan

is former chief of staff to the leader of the Scottish Labour party. He is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street and was director of communications for former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. He tweets @johnmcternan

1 comment

  • Some politicians are said to have ‘a brain the size of a melon’, meaning that they have immense intellectual capacity. I on the other hand, think that whilst this is may be true in a few cases, most politicians have a brain which has the contents of a melon viz, very squishy in content and full of pips. Whichever way Cameron chooses on Europe is bound to be the wrong move – do exactly the opposite. Not sharing LABOUR’s proposals and manifesto for the next 5 years [post GE 2015] may be construed as being facile by some voters, me for one — if you are afraid of the tories ‘nicking’ a good idea which benefits UK people as a whole [to promote their tory interests] then I say that your priorities are all wrong — does it really matter who comes up with the ‘good idea’ if it is the right one which has a benefit for all?
    Tony Benn [requiscat in pace] was right about one thing when he said: ‘Its not the personalities that matter in politics, its the issues’. Bill Clinton was also right about getting priorities in order and ejecting Super Egos : ‘People, Policies, Politics, in that order.’

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