December 11, 2013
Red Ed takes Labour centre-stage
Report from UK for the Herald
LONDON - The party conference season is in full swing. The conferences are an annual opportunity for the main political parties to take stock, pat backs and for their leaders to deliver a promise about their vision of the future of Britain. It is also a crucial platform for leaders to generate headlines about them that focus on their speech, their message and their standing, a shot at producing positive headlines, which can often be in short supply for all heads of the major parties.
It is for this reason that UKIP were so furious on the weekend when their resident foot-in-mouth expert, Godfrey Bloom, described women as “sluts” and then hit a journalist with a rolled-up newspaper. Party conferences should, in theory, be carefully staged public relations events; the leaders want to take centre-stage, rather than be overshadowed by the idiocies of their followers. Bloom was swiftly sacked, but his was the greatest ripple caused by the UKIP conference.
The leader’s speech is the main event, in which the chosen representative reviews the past and aims for the future by building on the present. This was apparent last week during the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow, in which Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg stuck to a two-pronged message: coalition government has been successful, as the Lib Dems have played a key role in economic recovery; and the party wants to be involved in another coalition the next time around.
The speeches are also a useful indication as to how strong a position the leader is in with their own party. As Clegg preached about the strength of coalition, Business Secretary Vince Cable, viewed by many as vying for Clegg’s job, slammed the Conservatives as “blinkered” and accusing the senior party in the coalition of “dog-and-whistle politics”. Although Cable was sharply rebutted both behind the scenes and by Clegg’s speech, things are clearly not entirely rosy in the Lib Dem camp.
Clegg is not alone. Both the Prime Minister and Labour leader Ed Miliband face similar problems with their own standing within their parties. It was Miliband’s turn this week, at the Labour conference in Brighton, to convince his party once more that, three years after he was elected leader, he still has what it takes to lead them to victory in 2015. Miliband took to the stage yesterday with the intention of laying out a plan for the future, but due to events last week, Labour’s big event has been dogged by the past.
Much of Miliband’s leadership has been about drawing a line between the infighting that characterized the Blair and Brown governments, but the announcement last week that the Daily Mail would serialize the memoires of Damian McBride, a former spin doctor, threatened to overshadow the conference before it had even begun.
McBride, who worked as Gordon Brown’s head of communications both prior to and after his succession of Tony Blair in 2007, resigned under a cloud in 2009 after it was revealed that he had personally been involved in plans to launch smear campaigns against prominent Conservative politicians.
The campaign was the culmination of several years of sustained targeting of opponents, within Labour as much as the Conservatives. In interviews over the last week, McBride has protested his desire to repent through the book.
His memoirs, which are about to be published, are being teased by the Mail. The timing is intended to be at best embarrassing and at worst damaging to the Labour party, and to Miliband. It has also been interpreted as a desperate tactic by an experienced tactician in McBride, who claimed on Monday that the intention behind publication had been to ensure that such infighting could never happen again but has also admitted to serious debts, which the royalties from the book will go some way to repaying.
Although the timing was designed to be highly damaging for the Labour party at its conference, and apparently talk at the conference has focused on little else, Miliband himself has so far emerged relatively unscathed.
In an interview with Andrew Marr last Sunday, Miliband stated that when he discovered what was going on, the now-leader urged Brown to sack McBride. The former spin-doctor has equally made it clear that neither Miliband nor his shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, knew anything about his activities.
McBride, who did not have an invitation to the conference, did not fail to visit Brighton to maximize publicity for his memoires. His publisher Ian Dale also played his part in the spin machine by scuffling with an anti-nuclear protestor on Brighton pier as McBride was being interviewed.
Many of the shadow cabinet have also gone out of their way to underline how the revelations demonstrate the marked contrast between Labour in the dying days of the Brown leadership and its current state.
Former figures, including Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, have gone further, accusing the work of McBride and others like him of “ushering in the Conservative government.” The revelations have injured without wounding.
However, as time runs out before 2015, the onus is on Miliband to deliver. The unity of his party was already under scrutiny before the McBride revelations, with rumours of internal frictions with Balls over Labour’s approach to certain key issues, including high-speed railway HS2 and the position on Europe, coupled to the well-publicized external tension with the unions.
Miliband and his leadership should be the main focus of the conference, not the scurrilous interventions of a former professional mischief-maker, and Labour has allegedly reacted with fury to the Mail and its attempts to undermine.
Therefore, in an environment of multiple distractions, it was up to Miliband to show leadership on September 24, to provide a clear promise as to how Labour would progress in the coming year. In this sense, Miliband came out fighting.
He attacked the Conservatives, drawing clear distinctions between himself and David Cameron, while announcing bold plans to freeze energy prices until 2017 when elected, repealing the controversial ‘bedroom tax’ and allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to vote.
Miliband also blamed the Conservatives for divisive politics, and for siding with corporations and vested interests rather than workers. “Britain can do better than this,” was the Labour leader’s cry in his hour-long speech, delivered again without notes.
Immediate reactions ranged predictably between enthusiastic support and sneering derision. Labour activists warmly received Miliband’s energy announcement, claiming that “Red Ed is back,” while utility companies and representatives warned that such moves would be expensive in the long run and possibly cause blackouts or “threaten energy security.”
The impression, though, was that Miliband had successfully used his speech to wrest central focus away from revelations of years gone by, and replaced it with a message and an approach of how he wants Labour to proceed.
The issue for the Labour leader is that, while he can raise cheers from the party faithful during the conference, he has struggled to maintain the goodwill throughout his leadership. The real problems regard his electability; Miliband may convince the party in Brighton, but can he have the same effect on the country? His struggle is not unique: Clegg and Cameron have similar battles on their hands, although Cameron’s position is probably the most secure of the three.
However, until Miliband can get a real grip on his party and in doing so show he has the strength of character to lead, infighting and revelations designed to trip him up will continue to do so. Britain probably can do better, but Labour’s leader needs to demonstrate that his party has truly changed from the bad old days of Brown and Blair before Miliband can be in a position to prove that he’s the right man for the job.