It would seem that a tortuous four month leadership campaign just wasn’t quite long enough for some in the Parliamentary Labour Party. They liked it so much, they want to do it all over again. Why have one bout of pointless introspection, when you can indulge in another?
How else to explain the front page splash in this week’s Sunday Herald that suggests that some want to ditch their newly crowned leader and get a new one? The knives are out, Ed needs to do a relaunch urgently, his authority is weak, and – the ultimate putdown – his leadership, less than three months old, is being likened to Gordon Brown’s. How drearily familiar.
There are some issues that the UK Labour leader needs to resolve but as John McTernan has pointed out, Ed Miliband is in a marathon not a sprint. McTernan praises the cool, strategic logic applied to some of his personnel decisions and suggests more of the same is required. Yet, the difference of opinion, or even emphasis, amongst the key personnel on Labour’s front bench team appears to be fuelling the rumours. And this is one area where Ed has work to do.
The Labour front bench needs a clear purpose, an unambiguous approach that gives tactical hits day after day but is also reminiscent of a big picture. It should show people the direction of travel. Again, as McTernan indicates (I know, I never thought I’d be agreeing with him twice in one article either), the tone is vital. Humility IS the order of the day for Labour.
So three key things Miliband must do to steady the ship and silence the noises off.
He needs a big headline narrative that appeals to the squeezed middle in particular. The narrative has to hint at a bigger purpose but no more. And it needs to be clever enough to shape shift demographically: the squeezed middle is a state of being rather than a reality and is different in different parts of the country. Finally, the Opposition frontbench must sign up to it and recite it everyday, all day.
Key to this is sorting out the lines of communication and messaging between him and his shadow Chancellor, Alan Johnson. They need to be seen as two halves of the same whole. At the moment, one is half apple, the other half orange. Drill down into who is saying what and there actually isn’t that much difference but the message is confused. It must be crystal clear. Together they can be a very strong team for opposition, but only if they sort out the basics in their key lines and how those are articulated.
Ed also needs to appear strong and purposeful. No dithering. If Miliband says he will do something, he must do it. Showing solidarity with hard pressed individuals and families as the cuts really begin to bite will be a good thing. But being on people’s side does not necessarily mean being shrill or confrontational. Take a position and stick to it but do it in an empathetic and contrite way. He needs to be the brick people can rely on. His youthful demeanour and engaging puppy dog enthusiasm is a bit of a hindrance here. But it can be achieved. Start with a better speechwriter. Please.
Finally, Miliband must challenge the dissenters head on, particularly those Blairites and the Balls-Cooper axis who are probably behind much of this mischief making. He needs to remind them that he appointed them all to do a job and he’d be grateful if they’d get on and do it. And I reckon this kind of show of strength should be made publicly. Shining light into dark and murky corners will soon send them all scuttling. Or it will flush them out. Whichever, he needs to show his strength and to demonstrate perhaps more directly that he is in charge.
As for everything else, it can wait. He has already signalled a root and branch policy review. The UK Government, as the Lib Dem debacle over tuition fees is demonstrating, is more than capable of getting into bother on its own. Opposition is all about patience and pouncing when the moment is right. The best thing Labour can do right now is nothing and Labour MPs need to grasp that.