“A period of silence on your part would be welcome”

Luke Akehurst

labourlist leadership hustingsBy Luke Akehurst / @lukeakehurst

I supported Ed Miliband in last year’s leadership contest.

But if he hadn’t won I would now be enthusiastically backing whichever of his opponents had (yes, even Diane!),

That’s the only way any sane political party can act – you decide who your leader is going to be in an internal election, then you get behind whoever wins and you work your guts out to get them elected Prime Minister. For a good example of how this is meant to work, see how the Hilary Clinton supporters were able to campaign tooth and nail against Obama in the primaries then work their socks off for him in the general election.

Unfortunately Labour spent so long indulging in the Blair/Brown wars that some of the participants have forgotten any other way of operating other than undermining the leader.

I don’t think this is universal, or even widespread, amongst supporters of the defeated candidates. There are extremely high profile backers of David Miliband and Ed Balls now working very closely with Ed Miliband. The best defence of Ed on Newsnight on Friday came from my friend Jessica Asato who worked on David’s campaign. And David himself made a very helpful statement on Sunday calling for party unity.

But this Sunday’s papers showed there are enough self-important and self-indulgent givers of anti-Ed quotes and briefings around to get a good little media firestorm going.

Some of these people are so full of themselves it is beyond parody. One “Labour Aide” (job – promoting a Labour victory to the press, not bad-mouthing the leader) was quoted in the Observer saying “If Ed has got this plan, then we need to see it now. It is time for him to show us why we are coming to work every day.” No, dear “Labour Aide”, why would he show his plan to someone that is negatively briefing the press? It’s not for Ed to show you why you are coming to work every day, it’s for you to show him how you are doing the day job of making him Prime Minister.

The premise for the whispering campaign against Ed seems to be that his victory was illegitimate, and that he is not Tony Blair re-created, either in terms of his politics or acquiring 20% plus poll leads.

To believe Ed’s victory wasn’t legitimate you have to believe that the political role of trade union members in the party should be ended, and that 247,000 members of affiliates (far more representative of the general voting public than our individual party members are) who voted in the leadership election should be disenfranchised. That would make you an interesting sort of democrat, wanting to narrow rather than widen the Labour franchise. It would mean you had a highly imaginative solution to how Labour should fund its next general election campaign, as the vast bulk of our funds come from our affiliated unions. It would also lead me to question why you had chosen to join a party founded by trade unionists to advance their causes in parliament, and carrying the give-away name “Labour”.

To think Ed should be shoved aside because there is a Tony Blair waiting in the wings you have to be a deluded fantasist. Tony Blair is not available to return as Leader, and even if he was his brand is a bit tarnished compared to 1997. None of the people that ran against Ed, fine politicians though they are, are Tony Blair. He was a one off. We were very lucky to have him as Leader but we will end up looking like the political equivalent of Harold Camping’s followers constantly predicting the Rapture if we pin all our hopes on another Blair suddenly materialising.

Nor is the political situation the same as the one Blair inherited in 1994. Then Kinnock and Smith had already done much of the heavy lifting already. The Tory government had been in power for 15 years, was running out of steam, and had lost its economic credibility on Black Wednesday. Kinnock had already scored 34% in the 1992 election, not the 29% starting point we have now. We were already on 47% in the opinion polls, a 21% lead, when John Smith died. Those kinds of poll leads are unlikely ever to be duplicated, as polling methodology has changed as they were believed to be unrealistic.

Ed has inherited a situation more akin to Kinnock’s in 1983 – picking up and rebuilding a party that has been electorally smashed. To take us to a consistent 40%+ in the polls from a 29% base is no mean achievement.

As someone happy to be called a Blairite throughout the 1994-2007 period I don’t understand what a Blairite critique of Ed’s politics could be based on. He hasn’t presided over a “lurch to the left”. This is the first time in Labour’s history that the party has not descended into left-right infighting after losing power. 1931, 1951, 1970, 1979 … Ed has broken that cycle. I cannot think of a single policy area where he has moved the party to the left. The initial noises from the Policy Review revealed by Liam Byrne show no indication of a leftward move. The set of ideas Ed is most interested in, Blue Labour, can be critiqued on many grounds, but it is not a project for moving Labour to the left, it’s about winning back votes from the Tories on terrain like crime, immigration and welfare reform, and has James Purnell and Hazel Blears engaging with it. His speech on Monday focuses on welfare reform and pays tribute to entrepreneurs. What’s for Blairites not to like?

On election results so far, I’ve already previously set out why the council elections in May were a good starting point and bear comparison with some of our best performances. People from our own side setting up fantasy targets of 1,000 or 1,500 gains with no evidence base to support why they might be achievable, then attacking Ed for not reaching them, deserve nothing but contempt.

We have a young leader who is clever, full of ideas for how to make our country a better place, human and decent. On top form he is capable of being truly inspiring. He has a massive weight on his shoulders – making Labour electable again after our second worst vote share since 1918. We must not underestimate the scale of the task – only two leaders, Wilson and Blair, have ever taken Labour to an overall majority from opposition in our 111 year history (Attlee had already been in a coalition government for five years when he won).

He needs our help not our carping or plotting.

We all have a choice to make, from shadow cabinet members down to ordinary activists, but particularly those of us with a public platform in the media or online. We can be part of the solution to Labour’s recovery by backing Ed and helping him win, or we can be part of the problem by undermining him. The public will not support a divided party and it would be irony indeed if having the least ideological divisions at any time in our history, we instead sink into internecine warfare over personalities.

Those people setting Ed targets – he must win the London Mayoral election being the latest one (something Blair was unable to do at the height of his powers in 2000) – need to be very visibly seen to contribute to hitting those targets by being out campaigning for them themselves. If you haven’t knocked on a door in London in the last few weeks frankly you haven’t earned the right to tell Ed he has to win in London, or how he should do it. A bit more canvassing and a bit less commentating would be a good principle to follow.

And in terms of more general commentary, whether it is op-eds, blogs, tweets or the whispered briefing of journalists, my rule would be this: if what you want to say will help Ed win and help Labour win, then say it. If it won’t, to quote Attlee to Laski, “I can assure you there is widespread resentment in the Party at your activities and a period of silence on your part would be welcome.”

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