Saturday, August 09, 2008

Miliband must distance himself from Blair

If David Miliband is to become Labour leader, he will have to win it from the centre, not by surrounding himself with Blairite "ultras." Here's my column in today's Newcastle Journal.


With the new football season almost upon us, hundreds of thousands of armchair fans will doubtless be spending the next few days selecting their Fantasy League sqauds for 2008/2009.

But as far as political journalists are concerned, there is nothing they enjoy more at this otherwise lean time of the year than a good old game of Fantasy Cabinets.

So it wasn’t entirely surprising this week to find one national newspaper attempting to guess the shape of David Miliband’s government line-up before the poor man has even got as far as the starting-line in a leadership race.

The South Shields MP, we are told, will appoint his fellow North-East Blairite, Darlington’s Alan Milburn, to the job of Chancellor if he succeeds in replacing Gordon Brown.

On the face of it, they might seem like a good combination, a political Sutton and Shearer – or for Newcastle fans with longer memories, a Macdonald and Tudor, perhaps.

Here, after all, are two youngish, thrusting reformers with the energy, charisma and above all fresh ideas to revive Labour’s moribund political fortunes.

But to return to the footballing analogy, in Labour Party terms it is a bit like playing David Beckham and David Bentley – two right-wingers – in the same England XI. It makes the team look unbalanced.

And if the 43-year-old Foreign Secretary is serious about winning the Labour leadership, putting together a balanced ticket is going to be absolutely key to his prospects.

It is not hard to see why this should be the case. Although Mr Miliband has few personal enemies in the Labour Party, he is instinctively distrusted by many as a “Blair Mark 2.”

Although Mr Miliband’s politics are rather more nuanced than this – in some respects he is well to the left of his old boss – there are some who would view his candidacy as a sort of restoration project.

Hence the very last thing he needs is to be seen to be teaming up with Mr Milburn, who apart from his old chum Stephen Byers is about the most dyed-in-the-wool Blairite “ultra” around.

What he needs is to be seen to be reaching out not to his natural allies on the right of the party, but to his potential opponents on the centre-left.

In the light of all this, it is understandable that many observers this week saw the claims about a “Mili-Mil” leadership plot as a piece of black propaganda by the Brownites to discredit the Foreign Secretary.

Indeed, so successful does it appear to have been in this regard that I wonder if the Prime Minister’s old spinmeister Charlie Whelan is back at his side.

The genius of the story – if indeed it did have Mr Brown’s fingerprints on it – was that it played exactly into the party’s fears about what Mr Miliband might do as leader.

No matter that Mr Milburn himself has dismissed the reports, in terms, as “balls” – enough seeds of doubt will have been planted to make people think twice about the whole enterprise.

So let me indulge in a bit of Fantasy Cabinet-making myself on Mr Miliband’s behalf, of the kind that would suggest he is genuinely reaching out to all sides of the party.

The two people who are going to be crucial in any leadership contest – the kingmakers in my view – are the health secretary Alan Johnson in the centre, and the former deputy leadership candidate Jon Cruddas on the left.

I wrote a fortnight ago that Mr Miliband’s old friendship with Mr Johnson dating back to their days as education ministers could be central to his chances, and I stand by that.

Many MPs would like Mr Johnson to stand himself, but failing that, his endorsement will carry huge weight.

As for Mr Cruddas, it was he who swung the deputy leadership for Harriet Harman last year after making clear on the BBC’s Question Time that his second-preference vote would go her way.

But the job he really wants is not the deputy leadership, but that of reforming the party’s internal structures and galvanising its decrepit grassroots organisation.

If Mr Miliband really is in the business of handing out Cabinet jobs in advance, he should promise Mr Johnson the job of Deputy Prime Minister and Mr Cruddas the party chairmanship.

With those two on board, he could make a powerful case that, far from being a divisive “Blairite,” he is really the candidate who can unite this fractious, divided party.

As for Mr Milburn, while there should clearly be a place for him in any post-Brown administration, I doubt if that place is the Treasury.

Although the Darlington MP was briefly Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1998-99,
his real political talents lie in blue-sky thinking and communicating a vision, rather than figures and grasp of detail.

Indeed he has the kind of skillset that is required more for No 10 than for No 11, which is one of the reasons I have previously advocated him as a leadership contender.

I can see him being offered a Cabinet Office cross-cutting role to "think the unthinkable," possibly looking at policies across the piece to kick-start social mobility, his pet subject.

In the final analysis, Mr Miliband needs to keep his eyes not just on the internal party selectorate but on the broader electoral picture.

If the idea of a “Blair Mark 2” is unpopular within the Labour Party, it is not likely to prove any less so amongst the public as a whole.

The main reason Mr Brown has proved an unpopular Prime Minister is because he was unable to be the change the country wanted after his predecessor’s long reign.

Mr Miliband must base his appeal not just on the fact that he isn’t Gordon Brown. He must make clear that he isn’t Tony Blair either.

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Phil said...

Given how horrific a Cameron led government would be, I'll accept the argument that Miliband might replace Brown to prevent that scenario. And I'll accept the argument that Miliband should drop both Blairite and Brownite policy positions. One of their shared policies was PFI, and you can't get much more stupid than that.

The difficulty with a new policy set is not its creation, but its presentation. If the ideas already existed within the Labour party and related think tanks, why were they not considered earlier? The electorate looks at an eleven year old government and expects them to have worked things out by now. If the new policy ideas had been floating around and the Labour party had quashed them, how confident would you feel about that party's ability to take on future policy innovation?

I think that I am more or less agreeing with Paul, but I don't think that Labour is capable of making the necessary changes. The electorate, it currently seems, do not want New Labour or Old Labour. And they will be very cynical of any further re-invention.

Gregg said...

Milburn? Seriously? Alan Milburn?

Is the idea to make Miliband's Cabinet so bad that we'll be nostalgic for the Brown era?

noel said...

It's not about not being like x or not being like y or getting z to do x job or whatever. Maybe it's because I don't hang out in the Westminster village but the first reaction I got when different people were talking up different candidates for PM is that it feels easier to become Prime Minister than it is to afford to go to university. It's not about balancing someone on the right of the party with someone on the left, if the policies stay the same, wait a minute, I think that's called triangulation. Where have I seen that before?

Letters From A Tory said...

Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants 'another Blair' - especially the Labour Party.

Dirty Euro said...

What if the PM does go in the next few months. And is then replaced by a Milliband, then the new leader such does not change the election results. We end up with a 400 to 160- seat defeat. Will the blairites and Milliban take the blame for that. Will the current PM be heard laughing and mocking the blairites for the defeat, and claim the defeat was not his fault.

Dirty Euro said...

I still thin we can win the next election. But I do not think a leadership change would have an impact there is no evidence that a new leader would have a boost.
As I say if we are going to lose because of the economy why would anyone want the job of being the worst labour leader.
What if Milli takes the new office as PM get a recession and lead the party to a massive defeat why is that anything to be pleased with.

Dirty Euro said...

I am summed up my point as this!
Everyone keeps saying the party will be decimated at the next election. Well what headcase would like to be the leader who leads the party to the worst election result in government ?
Would you rather be one of the many "best PM we did not have" or "worst labour party leader who took labout to a massive defeat".
Why do so many average politicans que up for this role.
Who is more admired Ken Clarke or John Major? Michael Foot or Tony Benn?
With all respect to Foot and major they led their parties and the fact they suffered heavy defeats allways negates their political legacy. Do you want to be President Hoover, Kim Campbell?
Being a disatorous PM is maybe not the great ambition you think it is. It can be a millstone.
OK so you get historical fame but what sort of historical fame a joke figure who led the party to a record defeat. Foot would be a far more admired figure if he had not led the party in 83. If Benn had led his party instead of being the cult hero he is, he would probably be that guy who lost in 83 by a landslide if he had stood as labour leader.
Do people like Milliband, Straw, etc: want that pain?
I still think we can win the next election if the ecnomy improves but if it does not then we are done whatever whoever leads the party is destined to a heavy defeat and infamy.
So basically this is a bunch of politicans squabbling to be the worst PM who lead labour to massive defeat. Why? It is like wanting be England manager for free.

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