5 ways Ed Miliband can get back on the front foot – An open letter

12th August, 2013 10:07 am

Dear Ed,

Welcome back – I hope your holiday in France was restful. You’ve had your phone turned off for the past couple of weeks I know – but I imagine your team may have been calling Justine to update you on how the Labour Party has begun eating itself whilst you’ve been away.

It wasn’t pretty.

In short, the media narrative has turned decisively against your leadership, and although your position as Labour leader isn’t under threat, your credibility as a potential future Prime Minister is being continually challenged in the media. “No change there then”, you might smile to yourself, but you shouldn’t, because this time it’s actually serious. Party conference is just six weeks away, and you need to get back on the front foot. Here are five ways to do that:

Reshuffle (Go Big and do it quickly) – That you’re contemplating a reshuffle is perhaps the worst kept secret in Westminster (or the second worst, everyone knows Cameron is planning one too). Your reshuffle plans have been known since the Spring and have hovered, like the sword of damocles, over the heads of poorly performing Shadow Cabinet Ministers. And yet if anything these MPs – allegedly the giants of the PLP – have largely shrunk, rather than grown, under the pressure. The reshuffle can’t wait any longer – do it soon – but more than that, go big. Make bold changes. Weed out those who have made a negligible impact (or have been notably disloyal) and replace them with either fresh blood or proven experience. And don’t be afraid of dumping disappointed colleagues onto the backbenches. If no-one is disappointed then the reshuffle probably wasn’t worth doing.

Hire a strategist – but not as the face of the campaign – Perhaps the most positive development during your time away was the news that you’re planning to hire an election strategist as well as having a Shadow Cabinet member front the election campaign. That means a campaign expert taking on Crosby and Messina, whilst a politician takes on Grant Shapps. Suddenly, this election looks like a fair fight again. Mitch Stewart, Tom McMahon and Stephanie Cutter are all Obama campaign veterans and all plausible hires. Bruce Hawker could be hired once the Australian election is done in a month. And there are plenty of British strategists who would jump at the chance. Make the hire quickly – and then get the right politician to front up the campaign. They will need to bring a sense of urgency to the party that has been sorely lacking in recent months.

Policies – The crux of the discontent in the party comes down to – essentially – a lack of direction. Now that direction doesn’t have to come from the leader, but it certainly helps. And the best way you can provide that leadership is by giving the party something to campaign on – policies, rather than just opposition. With just 21 months to go until the election, activists are being sent onto the doorstep without a clear message. One Nation is not a message, it’s just framing. So let’s roll out the policy platform we known you’ve been working on – a million affordable homes in the next parliament, action on the Living Wage, a push on the jobs guarantee, full employment, cracking down on payday lenders, integrating social care with the NHS and funding for childcare. Any one of these would give the party something to rally around. At the moment that’s what we lack.

Restore discipline – it’s one thing for rent-a-gobs like me to criticise the party’s lack of policies/direction/strategy/vigour – but it’s an entirely different matter when members of the PLP begin to do the same. A trickle of Labour MPs have begun to take to the sleepy summer airwaves criticising your leadership, that could soon become a stream of MPs, and then a torrent. It’s time to restore some discipline – set out your stall and let it be known that anyone who wishes to take issue with your leadership can do so personally at a PLP meeting or keep their thoughts to themselves. And make it clear that those who transgress will be dealt with severely. No more Mr Nice Ed. Be ruthless – remind them what you did to Nick Brown. And your brother.

Be prepared for conference – I don’t know how we keep on ending up here Ed, but you’ve got another “make or break” conference on your hands this year. By the time we get to Brighton you might have shuffled your deck and announced a few policies, but if not the need for those actions will hang heavy in the sea air. Your speech will need to knock socks off the press pack (again) but this time you can’t wheel out a new slogan or (however impressively) do it without notes. This time you need to impress people with substance. Oh – and there’s the small matter of the interim report on the Labour/Union link from Lord Collins, as well as a motion for debate that is designed to “outlaw” Progress from campaigning in the party (and have a severe and untold impact on other groups). You need to work hard to make sure conference isn’t overshadowed by internecine infighting – because if it is, that speech and those policies will be ignored anyway.

A busy 6 weeks awaits Ed. I hope you’re well rested – because there’s no time for breaks between now and May. That’s May 2015. 21 months to make a difference. 21 months to decide whether you’ll be Prime Minister, or a Labour backbencher. Chop chop.

Best wishes, and kind regards


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  • Kulgan of Crydee

    Worryingly, If Ed listens to Mark then he may well be a true threat to the Coalition. It is now time for Labour to put out their stall. It does however, need to be coherent & credible so that the electorate can choose.

  • Les Harrington

    Ed Milliband needs to prove he is one of us and not as suggested one of them. The nations needs rebalancing since the actions of pseudo-socialist Blair.

  • Leon Spence

    The one issue, the elephant in the room if you will, is Ed’s personal poll ratings. Voters must see Ed as Prime Minister and the polls suggest at the moment they don’t. I believe Ed will make an excellent PM, the issue is conveying that to prospective voters – one conference speech won’t do that.

  • Amber_Star

    And yet if anything these MPs – allegedly the giants of the PLP – have largely shrunk, rather than grown, under the pressure.


    You say activists are being sent ‘naked’ to the doorsteps; how do you think it feels to be equally ‘naked’ on national TV? I’ve often seen entire interviews where the Labour minister can scarcely say a word without being cut-off mid-sentence by being asked – for the tenth time in under 1 minute – “yes, yes, we know what the issue is – but what would Labour do?”

    Why do you expect shadow cabinet ministers to raise their heads above the parapet when every interviewer can – & does – chop them to pieces using the simple mantra: “But what would Labour do?” Not going like lambs to the slaughter justifies them being sacked in your view? Frankly, if that’s what you think, I don’t agree with you.

    • Hugh

      I’d agree with that. I don’t warm to much of the shadow cabinet, but if you refuse to commit to any policies what on earth are they meant to say? They seem no more or less competent than any other particular bunch; they just have no ammunition.

    • ToffeeCrisp

      “But what would Labour do?”

      It’s not unreasonable for a spokesperson for an opposition, which claims to be a government in waiting, to be expected to answer said question.

  • Lee Butcher

    Some interesting points Mark, but two I think require
    further comment.

    This recent clamour to hire in American and Australian
    campaigning experts is curious. True the Democrats have had a good run under
    Obama, though importantly only for the presidential elections. Congressional
    and Senate elections have been disappointing and it is these elections that our
    own election will resemble. Elections are won as much by the individual efforts
    of candidates and local conditions in constituencies as they are by the
    leaders. A fine run by Ed will only produce limited results if constituency
    efforts are too little supported. The American experts have proven the ability
    to sell a leader, and to an extent developing district level efforts to do
    that, but Democrats have done a poor job selling their legislative candidates
    across the country. Their skills may not be necessarily as transferable as we
    seem to assume. Seeking Australian talent is even more unusual. Our Labor
    cousins are in a bad place and are heading towards defeat. Their Liberal opponents only seem to have the advantage in that they are not Labor. Their politics since John Howard have become even more divisive than our own. The kind of negativity that is stock in trade over there really ought not to be welcome
    here (nor, some might argue, in Australia). Perhaps the most important point is
    that it reveals how hollowed out our own personnel has become if we have to
    import talent from abroad. Immediately after the longest run of electoral
    success in Labour’s history it is odd that we have no talent of our own to
    provide these expertise. I think it demonstrates just how damaging the fatigue
    prior to 2010 was on our ranks, and how badly damaged we were by defeat in
    2010. The relative calm of the transition into opposition may have hidden from
    view these internal problems.

    The second point is on discipline. The problem is not Ed and
    the Whips not being tough enough, but that loyalty is bought by the promise of
    good results. The two MPs (aside from Burnham) to have spoken up are backbench MPs with healthy majorities and, as far as one can tell from the public record, have no ambition to return to government having done their time under previous administrations. There is virtually nothing the leadership can do to threaten these MPs into submission, and nor should they. MPs won’t speak up if they are hopeful of a good result and trust the leader to deliver those results. Loyalty is assured not by a more vigorous whipping operation, but by an
    improvement in the perception of the leader’s performance. This was why the
    party was significantly more unified under Blair then it had been prior to his
    leadership (and why when the polls turned that discipline broke down).All
    leader’s have to tread carefully when managing their parliamentary party,
    taking on a pugilistic stance towards the PLP is not likely to deliver
    productive results but instead convert unease into something more negative.

    The calm and reasonable stance taken by Ed so far needs to
    be maintained, but combined with the other points you mention Mark. A set of
    policies we can sell to the public locally and nationally, a press and campaign
    strategy that gets those policies noticed and an active commitment to getting
    the campaign machinery in place in constituencies well in advance of the

  • Amber_Star

    And BTW, nobody outside ‘the bubble’ has noticed anything amiss with politics except that the coalition are coming out with a load of stupid, unworkable ideas – like being allowed to park, dangerously, on double yellow lines whilst you do a bit of shopping.

  • Felix

    Let’s get this clear, Mark. Nobody sends me to the doorstep, I go because I want to.

  • rekrab

    I wouldn’t agree with every thing Mark say’s but I’d be more than happy if Mark was given a bigger role in the election campaign, he’s got labour in his blood and a real sense of what the public desire.I recall Mark going campaigning on one of the Yorkshire elections a few years back, arriving at the constituency Mark found that an element of social housing in a run down area hadn’t been canvassed, so Mark took to his heels and canvassed the area and was pretty much shocked by the state of some of the housing and conditions he found in the area, Mark, wrote an article on this at the time and it really touched home about labour’s inability to tackle the forgotten masses.

    Labour really needs labour minded people, if it wants to challenge for the next election and I say give Mark Ferguson a bigger role, let Mark convene an urgent meeting with the PLP and for sure Mark will tell them what is missing and what needs to be done.

    We’re simply drift wood at this time and have lost our way for a long time, lets just get back to being labour and lets use our good people like Mark to do the job, enough of the management squak talk, lets say what we mean and mean what we say.

  • Hugh

    “you’ve got another “make or break” conference on your hands this year.”

    They are absolutely always “make or break” speeches,and it will almost certainly be a turning point. There’s only so many times and ways one can write 600 words on Labour lacking direction and leadership, so all Ed needs to do is remember his lines and come out with one or two vaguely striking policies and this one will be another triumph. We’ll then have four months of “government on the rocks”stories before the cycle repeats.

  • Monkey_Bach

    My advice, such as it is, would be to stand up for what you believe is right and be proactive rather than reactive. Try beating them for a change rather than joining them: try to make the running for once rather than following in their wake. For too many year than I care to remember the Tories have made the running policy-wise with Labour triangulating rightward desperately trying to counter some new, desperately flawed, Conservative initiative reactively. That said I’m finding it harder and harder to imagine Ed Miliband as Prime Minister and Ed Balls as Chancellor of the Exchequer, which is difficult to credit considering how absolutely awful David Cameron and George Osborne have proven to be in those roles over the past few years.


    • robertcp

      I agree. All that matters is stopping the Conservatives getting a majority and I am not sure that I want Labour to get a majority. Do we really want more Blairite rubbish inflicted on the UK?.

      • DanFilson

        Yes I defiinitely want Labour to get a majority. No question.It doesn’t follow that Blairite rubbish would run the agenda. Who you select as your Labour PPC matters. Values – check out their core values.

        • robertcp

          Thanks for the reply and I hope that you are right.

  • RogerMcC

    Very well said indeed.

    Two quibbles:

    you’ve got another “make or break” conference on your hands this year.

    When a party is in opposition the media decrees that pretty much all conferences are ‘make or break’ because otherwise they’d be too boring to read about never mind attend.

    a million affordable homes in the next parliament, action on the Living
    Wage, a push on the jobs guarantee, full employment, cracking down on
    payday lenders, integrating social care with the NHS and funding for
    childcare. Any one of these would give the party something to rally

    ‘Any one of these?’

    For Christ’s sake don’t let him think there is a choice!

    We need each and every one of these policies undiluted and in full – and not just one saved up to be doled out as this conference’s big idea but at least several announced this year.

  • DanFilson

    My advice to Ed is to write a good Conference speech. One speech can capture the heart of the Party and the nation, by articulating what we feel only in better words, and setting out a clear sense of direction. Print it out and ensure it reads well, as prose and in paragraphs. Make sure it has more telling argument than simple bullet points or slogans, but don’t be afraid of including a telling catch phrase that sums it up (no more bland One Nation stuff, though). How it’s printed on the teleprompter is not relevant – only you need to see that. The version released to the press should be in coherent prose. What matters is how it comes across, both as a speech on television and in cold print afterwards.

    Secondly, on presentation. Handcuff your hands to the lectern. No more flapping hands please! Get a haircut, we know you’re young enough to have plentiful hair, but the fashion is for shorter hair which incidentally will also lose the white tuft that looks as if you’ve just been re-painting the ceiling. Wear a paler suit than black – you are different to Cameron, Clegg and the rest, so lighten the palette. Don’t ever fiddle with the buttons – you’re not Prince Charles either.

    Content – we need some specific commitments “We shall retain in public ownership the East Coast main line and as franchises expire take other rail routes back into public ownership too. Private ownership has not pulled in fresh capital investment – all it does is pay out as dividends to shareholders what we as taxpayers pay in subsidy; and public companies are more responsive to democratic pressure than private firms”

    Or: “We will legislate in the first Parliament to split the big retail banks into retail arms that take deposits and lend them out to businesses and individual customers – the way banks used to operate before they got greedy – and into investment banks that can and will take risks with their shareholders’ capital. We will ensure that existing shareholders get separate shareholdings for the two arms of their bank, and the clear understanding that we will not intervene if an investment bank runs into trouble. We understand commercial risk – it can be the creator of profit but it can be the cause of total financial loss. We will regulate the retail sector. We will regulate the investment bank sector, learning from previous experience. We will not be cowed by the arguments the banks put forward not to do so, as they were wrong to argue for light touch regulation before and they’re wrong still. We will legislate to regulate the salary and bonus levels in this sector of business and in all sectors of commercial life – no person can argue with any seriousness that he – it usually is a ‘he’ – is really worth several millions a year to his employer. We will support the Cooperative Bank – the only bank that does not pay dividends to its shareholders – to become one of the leading retail banks in the UK, with a wide spread of branches and a uniquely customer-focussed business approach that other banks will envy.”

    OR: “We will legislate to raise the National Minimum Wage to substantially above the level of the Living Wage. We shall do this over the heads of protests of businesses who protest it is not affordable. It is affordable. The higher wages people earn, the less they need to depend on employer-subsidising tax credits. Our future as a nation is not as a low wage economy. It is as one with full employment, or as close to it as we can get, with decent salaries and wages for all. A fully-employed nation would have a dramatically lower benefits bill and other unseen benefits – for example it is easier to spot the criminal when everyone else is at work. No more food banks, no more queues at job centres, no more humiliating interviews, no more jobs for no pay, no more zero hours contracts. People say there’s no difference between Labour and the other parties. Just you wait and see how wrong that is. Believe me. The difference will be so vast that people will look back and wonder why ever did we fall for that Coalition and the nonsense it did. We can change our United Kingdom for the better. Believe me. We shall.”

    • RogerMcC

      I’d have to disagree with the last paragraph.

      A really big hike in the minimum wage undoubtedly seems the moral thing to do but would have serious macro-economic effects as being soulless short-term profit maximisers many employers would a) just break the law as it is already barely enforced and the fines levied are a mere fraction of what they’d save by not paying the NMW, b) fire as many workers as is required to reduce the wage bill to what it was, c) hike prices (particularly in sectors like retail and food which are labour intensive and where option b) is not very feasible).

      Ultimately we can get to the same end by firstly instituting a Minimum Guaranteed Income (as is now being done by Cyprus) for all UK citizens at a level comparable to the existing NMW – which would remove pressure on workers to accept such low wages and force employers to offer significantly higher wages than the MGI if they are to attract any workers at all.

      Secondly we raised wages in the past without any NMW at all by a combination of full employment policies and through having strong trade unions and that is what we really need now.

      Thirdly we must address fundamental issues of ownership and control within companies – indeed break up the banks but force the new high st banks to become mutuals, make enjoyment of joint stock limited company status conditional on stringent rules about worker representation on boards, transparency and bonuses (that no manager may receive any form of bonus or pension scheme which is not paid equally to every member of staff would be good start), support new mutuals co-operatives in every way possible etc, etc.

      • DanFilson

        I want there to be macro-economic effects from a NMW upward hike. This is one of the ways we can get the economy moving again and fairly efficiently too. The extra spending power feeds directly into the economy as extra demand and that’s what we need. But though the cost switches from the state to the employers, and there is a risk that at the margins some employers may find that the tipping point between profit and loss, I think they may be surprised to find that paying decent wages produces a better and more motivated workforce. If small businesses cannot function without paying poverty wages they should go to the wall. Good riddance. That’s not the future of this country. We need to educate and train, and produce quality products. We cannot beat China by going downhill on wages. The net cost to the state is healthy – a vastly reduced benefit bill and better health for employees means a lower NHS bill.

        • RogerMcC

          The problem is you are weighing positive long term macro-economic effects against short term ones – but voters aren’t good at abstract economic analysis and will care far more about the job they’ve just lost at the company which was the only one that would employ them even if they didn’t pay well and that suddenly everything in the shops has become considerably more expensive.

          Which is why when this country still had some control over its economic fate we had prices and incomes policies (just imagine: under Ted Heath a business broke the law if they raised wages or prices outside the state parameters) and social contracts to control both wage and price inflation.

          Now none of those controls exist or can be brought back without withdrawing from the EU and other multilateral capitalist institutions.

          So changing just one factor – the NMW – is not the answer – we need a whole new approach to the economy, employment and welfare.

          • DanFilson

            Curiously enough I too had thought that voters were not good at abstract economic analysis. However on the doorstep I have put why something that immediately injects spending power (=demand) into the economy by for example increasing the NMW – by no means by only suggested economic nostrum – we could get growth moving again, increase the tax yields and reduce the benefit bill etc and this has been readily grasped even if the average punter did not get into debate about Ricardian equivalence. [Btw, my suggested speech offered other ideas apart from the NMW].

  • markfergusonuk

    It was a turn of phrase, and as an activist I feel the same way

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  • Amber_Star

    I didn’t say the interviewers are being unreasonable. I was making the point that the shadow cabinet can’t answer. Maybe I wasn’t clear: They’re not allowed to float policies in the media. Everything is under wraps until after the policy review + affordability approval from Ed Balls’s team.

  • DanFilson

    Whatever else Blair claimed to be, he never claimed to be a socialist so far as I know. Thank goodness, or that would have been one more lie on the existing heap.

    • RogerMcC

      Do you have a Labour membership card with the revised Blair clause 4 which unlike the old one actually describes Labour as a democratic socialist party?

      This doesn’t make him any less of a capitalist-roader but nevertheless he did use that term – and even the unqualified socialism/ist – on many occasions.

      • DanFilson

        Of course I have a Labour Party membership card. But I never thought Blair saw his Party’s membership card statement as applying to Blair himself. I haven’t trawled through Blair’s speeches but I’ll bet he never used the word socialist at a Guildhall dinner or when schmoozing the rich and powerful. Though equally I am not sure how often Clem Attlee used it in his terse comments on politics either.

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