Thursday, 8 August 2013

Dan Hodges

Dan Hodges is a Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest. He has worked for the Labour Party, the GMB trade union and managed numerous independent political campaigns. He writes about Labour with tribal loyalty and without reservation. He is on Twitter at @dpjhodges.

There’s a hole at Labour’s heart that not even Mandelson can fill

Talk of bringing back the party’s evil genius misses the real problem with Miliband’s team
Last week Westminster was rocked by the announcement that Jim Messina, one of Barack Obama’s most influential campaign strategists, had been poached by David Cameron. The Labour Party greeted this news with characteristic maturity. Shadow minister Dan Jarvis claimed that Messina would “have to look at himself in the mirror”, while a source close to Ed Miliband insisted Labour did not need a “big name”, adding: “This is not about big names; it’s about changing politics so we can change the country.”
But when the jealous red mist finally cleared, some of the party’s more level-headed strategists acknowledged the significance of the appointment. “The Tories are getting tooled up for 2015. We’re doing nothing,” said one insider. A Labour MP confessed to having his “head in [his] hands” when he saw the feeble response from his leader’s office.
The feeling within the shadow cabinet is that Labour isn’t even giving itself a fighting chance of winning in 2015. The party has a relatively competent media operation, but Miliband’s own office – now dismissed as “the crèche” – is viewed as lacking experience, competence or focus. Crucially, there is no one to pull together the myriad policy, press, advertising, fundraising, organisational and internal management threads that constitute a modern political campaign. As a result, the refrain “Where’s Ed Miliband’s Peter Mandelson?” has been doing the rounds in Labour circles for at least a year now.
On Sunday, The Independent claimed to have the answer: Miliband’s new Peter Mandelson is going to be Peter Mandelson. Labour MPs were said to be complaining that their party and leader “lacked oomph”. Ian Austin, MP and former aide to Gordon Brown, tweeted that Mr Miliband should “send for Peter Mandelson, the best in the business”.
Certainly Lord Mandelson would bring oomph, and a whole lot besides. As Neil Kinnock’s communications director, he was described as an “evil genius”. To which Kinnock replied: “You’re half right.”
The attractions are clear. Mandelson is a genuine strategist, rather than a mere spinner, and has a proven track record of success. When Gordon Brown shocked his party by bringing his arch-enemy back into the heart of government, Mandelson helped bring much-needed ballast to Brown’s dangerously listing administration. He would also be seen as the quintessential “greybeard”, a long-in-the-tooth political streetfighter, able to school Miliband and his callow aides in the ways of the world.
In reality, however, Peter Mandelson is no greybeard; he’s Labour’s Blackbeard. Mandelson’s reputation as master of the dark political arts now precedes him by too great a distance, and his appointment would bring with it too much political baggage – especially at a time when the Left of the party is already complaining that the leader is falling under the malign spell of the Blairites.
David Cameron has done well to snag two top-level political campaigners in the shape of Messina and Lynton Crosby, and the Miliband operation is a shambles. But politics is won and lost by the principals, rather than backroom staff. Labour is currently obsessing over “who will run the election”. And Messina’s appointment has probably accelerated the search for Tom Watson’s replacement as the party’s election coordinator, with Michael Dugher current favourite to edge out Douglas Alexander for the role. Even so, the idea that general election campaigns are “run” by a single, omnipotent individual is a fantasy. Lord Mandelson himself tells friends that the last campaign he felt he actually controlled was back in 1987. Since then, the election circus has grown too large, and the acts too diverse, to have one ringmaster.
The reality is that Labour’s 2015 campaign will be a mish-mash of competing agendas, personalities and factions. “In the last election people used to pop in to HQ for a couple of hours to show their face, and prove they were part of the operation. Then they wandered off and basically did their own thing,” one 2010 veteran told me. The best Labour can hope for next time is to find someone to give the operation some semblance of direction, and a final say on strategy.
The call for Mandelson’s return also exposes a more fundamental flaw in Labour’s operation, and indeed Labour’s psyche. For one, it demonstrates the utter failure of Miliband’s favoured strategy of attempting to win from the Left. True, the briefing surrounding Mandelson reflects summer mischief-making on the part of the Blairites. But the reason it has gained currency is the growing sense that Miliband’s own approach is so misguided, and his team are so hopelessly out of their depth.
Ed Miliband has spent three years assuring his party it can secure power without resorting to the techniques and tactics of New Labour. But it can’t. And it’s finally starting to wake up to that fact. At the same time, the call for another Mandelson encore is also a reflection of the failings of New Labour itself. New Labour was supposed to be a transformative political philosophy, but by the end of Tony Blair’s premiership it had become nothing more than a mutually supportive clique.
Labour’s last prime minister never effectively passed on the torch; nor did the members of his inner circle. They left no political machine for their heirs to inherit, and no blueprint for renewal. Come to that, they never definitively identified who their rightful heirs were. With the result that when people want a touch of that old Blairite magic, they have to reach out to old gods nearly dead. There is no new generation of political disciples waiting to take the New Labour “project” forward.
“We’ve got to look outside the party now,” one shadow cabinet source told me glumly. “There’s no point shuffling people around internally.” And that is what will probably happen, with talk of the imminent unveiling of a new press supremo to bolster Miliband’s media operation.
That will not help Labour address its fundamental problems, however. The party is not slumping in the polls because it does not have Jim Messina as director of political strategy. It is slumping because it has Ed Miliband as its leader, its leader has been appealing to his activists rather than the voters, and those activists and their party are faced by opponents who are now getting the big political calls right.
Peter Mandelson is a skilful political operator. But he is not a miracle worker. And he is getting a little long in the tooth to front a Blairite tribute tour. There is a vacuum at the heart of Labour politics, but it is not one that can be filled by a single political appointment, no matter how high-profile. It’s the vacuum that’s being created by the tortuous transition from the New Labour era to the post-Blair era.
Gordon Brown tried to build on New Labour, but failed. Ed Miliband has tried burying New Labour, and that’s failed too. The result is that we now have the spectacle of desperate Labour MPs begging Peter Mandelson to come back and run a New Labour-style campaign to try to sell Ed Miliband’s anti-New Labour agenda.
When Messina’s appointment was announced, rumours started circulating that he’d been approached by Labour too, but had rejected their advances. Anyone wanting to know why Jim Messina made that choice needs look no further than Labour’s reaction to the appointment of Jim Messina.