The attempted coup (if it was ever as organised or serious as that) is over. The newspaper stories about Miliband’s leadership have slowed from a torrent to a trickle. The anonymous briefing from would be plotters has been conspicuous by its absence since the weekend. Those who wished to see Miliband gone, but who weren’t willing to put their names to such a call, were told to “Put Up or Shut Up”. Evidently they have decided that shutting up was their best course of action.
Ed Miliband’s leadership of the party is no longer under question – barring an unforseen event, the leadership of the Labour Party won’t change before May’s General Election. But to say that there aren’t a lot of unhappy Labour MPs at the moment would be a barefaced lie. And with Labour marooned in the low-thirties in all of the recent polling, things need to change.
But I’m sick of people – myself included – simply saying that Miliband needs to be “better” or “bolder”. “Do better” is utterly meaningless advice. Asking for a change/greater radicalism in policy (which I’ve done before and will do again) isn’t the whole problem with Labour or Miliband’s leadership either. What he needs are tangible changes he can make today, that taken together should provide an improvement in his standing and his chances of being PM next year.
So here are 10 things Ed Miliband could do – today – to kickstart his leadership:
1. Rebuild some unity – Ed Miliband has been known to say that Labour under his leadership has sacrificed clarity for unity. Unfortunately that precious unity has come under threat in recent weeks. Johann Lamont’s resignation didn’t look like the act of a united party and neither did last week’s farrago. A substantial chunk of Labour MPs are disappointed and want a change – just not a change of direction, emphasis and focus, rather than a change of leader.There are different views on what is going on in the party and the country – Miliband needs to start by he should start listening to those dissenting voices and taking them on board, rather than dismissing them out of hand.
2. Get out of Westminster. It’s toxic and it’s broken – I only spend a couple of days there each week, but the atmosphere of the place invariably leaves me feeling more uneasy and less happy when I leave than when I arrive. Ed Miliband needs to be in Westminster for PMQs each Wednesday and a handful of other major votes. Apart from that, he doesn’t need to be in Westminster and he shouldn’t be. People are accusing the leader and his team of being trapped in a bunker, but the whole of Westminster is a bunker. When he’s in Westminster he’s part of the problem – a “more of the same, can’t tell them apart” Westminster politician. So get him out into the country as often as humanly possible. That will mean the Labour leader needs to stop trying to manage his own office. The next six months are Miliband’s last chance to genuinely meet, connect with and understand the British people he hopes to lead. In six months time he will either be PM (and trapped in a security bubble forever more) or will have lost – so he needs to get out there and meet people – actually meet people, not stage managed handshakes with party supporters.
And while we’re on, Miliband should have 5 Labour PPCs on his call sheet every day. He needs to find out the unvarnished truth about what people are saying on the doorstep, and get out there himself – meet voters, unannounced, like tens of thousands of Labour members do each week. And on his way home, call 5 MPs each day – and hear what they’re hearing in their constituencies.
3. Get the frontbenchers to work. Everything in the Labour Party at present seems to flow from the leader and the leaders office. Frontbenchers need to get to work selling the party, the policies and the future Labour government. Why is only Ed talking about the NHS? Where are the rest of the front bench? Get them out there on local radio, regional media and meeting people in key seats. Nevermind Ed Miliband spending too much time in Westminster – nobody should be in Westminster unless they have a good excuse. The government’s legislative agenda is effectively over (has been for ages) and Tory MPs are using the free time to campaign. We should do likewise. Frankly, there are too many MPs (some shadow ministers are amongst the worst offenders) sitting around in Westminster drinking coffee and moping about when there’s an election less than six months away that could, despite everything, still be won.
4. Accept that UKIP are a problem and start dealing with them properly – Heywood and Middleton was a snapshot of what UKIP could do in Labour’s Northern heartlands, but how many more wake up calls to the UKIP threat does Miliband need? Were the European elections (where UKIP won the vote in Doncaster – where Miliband represents – not enough)? Labour needs to accept that UKIP are a threat to mainstream British politics as a whole, and stop thinking they’re just a problem for the Tories. That’s short-termist thinking of the very worst kind. So far Labour are talking the talk on the UKIP threat, but Rochester and Strood suggests we’re still far too happy to stand back and let UKIP toxify our politics to give Cameron a bloody nose – not realising that’s the equivalent of punching ourselves on the nose too.
5. Make a proper effort with Scotland – In a month, Scottish Labour will elect their new leader. Whoever is chosen, they will have a clear mandate for change and will want (and need) to take firm control of how Labour campaigns and is run in Scotland. But that doesn’t mean you can leave Scotland to the new leader. Arguably the greatest threat to Labour’s ability to win a majority next year is a vote collapse in Scotland. You’re the leader of the UK-wide Labour Party, you fought to keep the union together – now you need to spend plenty of time in Scotland getting your hands dirty and telling Scots why having a Labour government matters.
6. Raise the morale of the base – It’s not just Labour MPs who are feeling down at present, it’s Labour activists and members too. There isn’t the swaggering confidence you’d hope for six months before the election, because those activists know better than anyone the challenge we face. They are the people who knock on doors and have them slammed in their faces. They know that the British people are not running towards us with open arms. They hear people attack you and say they won’t vote for us. Yet by and large they support you nonetheless. So boost their morale. Give them something to fight for. And if you’re not willing/able to give them the policy promises that’d put a spring in their step (eliminating poverty pay, building enough homes to end the housing crisis, etc etc) then you can at least remind us why we’re fighting and who the enemy is.
Peter Mandelson – not always a Labour favourite – did this superbly in 2009 with his “fighter not a quitter” speech and his determination to whack the Tories at every turn. Poor morale was one of the major problems with conference this year – it deflated activists and MPs for a month afterwards and led in no small part to the current leadership questions. At this late stage changing a media narrative is hard, but giving the troops a morale boost isn’t.
7. Too much emphasis on speeches. I’m sorry to say this a day before what looks like it might be a fairly significant Ed Miliband speech – but speeches aren’t the only (or even the best) way to communicate. Hardly anyone (outside of the political obsessives in the bubble) watches them and the media barely report them. I can’t remember the last time anyone outside of the party spoke to me unprompted about a Miliband speech – even some of the undeniably excellent ones he’s delivered at previous party conferences. Use media interventions, interviews, tweets, YouTube videos, Facebook posts – heck, go on a chat show and show you’re actually a nice, clever, interesting person – but please Ed, stop using speeches as a single transferable blunt implement for message delivery. It’s 2014, “innovate or die” as Bill Gates once said.
8. Do more regional and consumer media which people actually read. On a similar note to the point about speeches, the lobby is not the be all and end all. People read their local papers, so when you’re getting out of Westminster more often (see point 2) make sure you talk to their local media. They’ll be chuffed, and people who you need to vote Labour in key seats will hear what you have to say.
9. Raise money. Elections cost money. Don’t just assume the Tories are destined to outspend us 3:1, spend more time fundraising each week – and not just from the unions. Who are you having lunch with today? Will they donate to help kick the Tories out in six months? And if not, why not? As leader you are the party’s biggest fundraising tool. Every pound you raise can be spent on organisers in key seats. Think of every lunch with a potential donor in terms of how much better Labour will perform in the seats we need to win.
10. What is our election strategy and messaging? Make it clear. Lets end with a big one. Everyone knows what the Tories are focussing on – economy, welfare and leadership – their message is brutalist but it’s clear. If I have to hear “Long Term Economic Plan” once more I may scream, but at least their MPs have a script. But what’s our version? What should we be repeating on the doorstep until we’re sick of saying it? Cost of living crisis? That’s talking about a problem not spelling out a solution. So what’s out story for how we rebuild Britain? A string of speeches and announcements doesn’t add up to a coherent narrative, so lets start from what has already been spelled out by Jon Cruddas’s policy review – power in Britain is concentrated in a small number of hands, and al too often they’re the wrong hands. Let that message flow through everything the party does. Distil it into something simple and sell it on the doorstep, relentlessly. At Tory conference this year you couldn’t fail to see what the main Tory messages and pledges were – they were plastered everywhere you went. I honestly can’t remember what Labour’s conference slogan was now, and I forgot Miliband’s 10 year plan for Britain before I’d left Manchester. The Tories have an unappealing message but sell it well – we have a promising message but we’re selling it badly.
None of these changes will revolutionise or transform Miliband’s standing in the country. None are a silver bullet that would win an election on their own. But all would bring about a tangible improvement. And with six months left until election day, they’re all still changes that are worth making.