The recruitment of David Axelrod was Douglas Alexander’s coup. To get the biggest name in the Obama campaign on board for Ed Miliband was the first fruit of his appointment as Labour election coordinator. That appointment was a while coming. Both Alexander and Michael Dugher wanted to head Labour’s campaign, and both men had a strong claim to the job.
Dugher offered his boss a hard-hitting, take-no-prisoners approach summed up by Mike Tyson’s immortal approach to strategy: ‘Everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face.’ Alexander offered the Labour leader a sharp analytic mind and a track record of making good tactical calls. After all, it was Alexander and Miliband who shared the blame for pushing Brown to an early election in 2007, advice which now looks prescient. In the end, Miliband decided that he could have both, using Dugher to hit hard and Alexander to plan the campaign.
What neither man was able to offer Miliband, though, was absolute loyalty to the strategy the leader had based his leadership prospectus on. Alexander’s reading of Labour’s decline under Brown was very different to Miliband’s, and both men know it. At heart it came down to this: both men believed that Brown’s disguised social democracy had become an impossible position after the crash. Alexander’s solution was to revise social democracy. That led him to support David Miliband for leader. Ed Miliband, however, saw in a crisis of the market the chance to abandon furtiveness and show how fundamental Labour values of equality, justice and fairness were essential to Britain’s success.
Their different paths meant that Alexander was never quite trusted by some of the Labour leader’s closest advisers, who worried he would try to water down their ambitions for a Miliband premiership. Further, when they hit a rough patch, there was always a suspicion that those who had backed the elder Miliband were behind the inevitable whispers of dissent.
Other old allies barely disguised their contempt for the slight, quietly spoken Scot. Damian McBride, fond of mafiosi imagery, compared Alexander to Fredo, the incompetent, ineffectual elder brother of Godfather Michael Corleone. References to ‘Wee Dougie’ in negative briefings hint at a politics of machismo in which Alexander is cast as the five-stone weakling. Meanwhile, the leaderless Blairites were bemused as a long-time Brown consigliere somehow became the chief voice of Blairism in Miliband’s party.
This anomalous position actually made Alexander a stronger choice for campaign coordinator. Not quite a full member of any camp, he represented no factional victory, but instead reminds people that Miliband can unite his party’s various tribes and take them to victory. Furthermore, Alexander’s discipline and tactical and strategic nous meant that choosing him as campaign coordinator was a signal to the Westminster village that Labour would do whatever it took to win. For Miliband, the choice, though not easy, made perfect sense.
The main problem is for Alexander himself. In taking the role of chief strategist, he immediately became the lightning rod for any and all dissatisfaction with Labour’s position in the polls or in policy. It is disloyal and wrong to speak ill of the tsar. No such scruples apply to his misguided advisers.
It did not take long for discontent to surface. Alexander was accused of seeking to ‘shrink the offer’, trying to boil Miliband’s plans for a reformed capitalism down to a few pledges on a card, and little more. Arnie Graf, the American community organiser, was alleged to have been shoved aside by Alexander and his deputy, Spencer Livermore, while their attempt to ensure their control of the election campaign was briefed as a power-grab from the general secretary.
Then, too, there are calls from some old Miliband comrades for more boldness, though what this courage involves is sometimes less obvious than the source of the demands. Finally, some union general secretaries see in Alexander’s approach to politics a deracinated intellectualism out of touch with working-class values.
All these whispers have been silenced by Alexander’s triumph in getting Axelrod on board. As one member of parliament told your insider: ‘If we must have an American guru, it is good to have one who actually wins elections.’ What is more, there is a general sense that Labour’s messaging is sharper and more focused with a more streamlined decision-making process.
Despite that, Alexander surely knows that if the United Kingdom Independence party surges in this month’s elections, or Labour falls back, he will again be the lightning rod. All that discontent will strike at him.
Alexander really, really wanting to head the election campaign might, therefore, be the most revealing thing of all. To offer yourself as a chief scapegoat you must feel sure there will be no need for blame. So Alexander must have faith Miliband’s strategy, from the cost of living to attacking inequality, is both right and deliverable.
Alexander is often regarded by his peers as a master of detail, of charts and pamphlets, of spreadsheets and datapoints, a nerds’ nerd of a politician, more comfortable in data analysis than in preaching the socialist gospel. In this election, though, it will be his belief that Labour’s strategy can work that will make the difference. For all the data, Douglas Alexander, the churchman’s son, will need to prove himself a true believer in the Gospel according to Ed.
Cartoon: Adrian Teal
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