One of the great advantages to writing a weekly column is you get a sense of perspective on the political circus that happens in between columns.
The reality was that for all the media hype and excitement last week in Westminster circles, not a lot actually happened. Some journalists reported anonymous Labour MPs (who may or may not exist) allegedly involved in plots that weren’t actually implemented to change the Leader of the Labour Party.
These plots seem fairly fantastical in that they would have involved, if you believe the un-sourced press speculation, Alan Johnson emerging as the new leader. This presupposes that Alan – who I think is a great asset for Labour who ought to have a role in our campaigning – has any interest in the job (he says he hasn’t, and sounds genuine about that, and wouldn’t he have run in 2010 if he had?), that after four years hard work Ed Miliband would roll over and give up a position it is impossible constitutionally to dislodge him from if he wants to carry on it, that no one else would contest the subsequent vacancy (if they did we all know how long the leadership contest took in 2010), and that in the event of a contest vacancy Alan could win the Electoral College (which he couldn’t for the Deputy Leadership against Harriet back in 2007).
That’s a lot of presuppositions. Luckily none of them got tested.
What we did have is further damage done – another week when we could have been landing blows on UKIP and the Tories wasted on internal navel-gazing and angst.
I took two lessons from previous experience of the successful moves made against Tony Blair in 2006 and the unsuccessful coup attempts against Gordon Brown, both of which I was opposed to. The first is that conspirators (if they exist – we don’t even know if they did this time!) are usually motivated by what they sincerely believe to be the best interests of the Party. The second is that the outcome is usually to damage the Party by making us look divided – hence the 8% drop in the number of people saying Labour is “united” in one week according to Monday’s Ashcroft poll.
The exasperating thing about all this is that Ed Miliband’s great historical achievement has been to keep the Labour Party united after our 2010 defeat and buck the historical pattern of disunity and factionalism shown after all our previous defeats. For that unity to be put at risk six months before an election beggars belief.
The machinations of the high-ups (if that’s what happened, I repeat we have no proof any of this was actually real) are about as alienating for ordinary party members as it is possible to get. I spent a slice of the day that this was all kicking off canvassing for a council by-election on the Blackbird Leys estate in Oxford, talking to real voters about real issues in their streets, not about the soap opera at Westminster. Many people spent that day knocking on doors in the Rochester & Strood by-election. The idea that us electoral “Poor Bloody Infantry” do the hard slog of campaigning but go un-consulted while the top brass at Westminster casually and anonymously brief the media and stab the leader in the back is nauseating. Ed Miliband is our leader too – not just the PLP’s. He was elected democratically by an Electoral College consisting of members, affiliates and MPs, and it isn’t for a minority of one section of that (about to be abolished because Ed reformed it!) Electoral College to decide they can overturn his mandate.
One big difference between now and even 2009 and 2006 is that social media use is now so widespread that ordinary Labour members can express their opinions effectively and not just have to act as a passive audience while decisions about our party leader are taken by an elite.
The grassroots decided they did have a view about this – an instinctive and intuitive view about what is the right thing to do by Ed. So we saw genuine, spontaneous rallying round Ed online with over 60,000 people tweeting using the #webackEd hashtag and over 1400 signing the LabourList open editorial. This wasn’t engineered by the leader’s office – it was people just wanting their voices to be heard.
The real unity and fighting spirit of the Labour Party shone through.
Grassroots Labour Party members are not delusional. We know this has been a rough couple of months for Labour, with a flat conference followed by the SNP break-through in the Scottish polls and our poll lead eroding to nothing due to salami slicing by the Greens and great lumps being chopped out of our core vote by UKIP.
No one thinks the response has been adequate so far. I rather suspect Ed doesn’t think it has been. I have very publicly criticised the national party’s decision not to hit the ground running in Rochester & Strood when we should have made that a die hard fight against UKIP.
But the idea that this is all individually Ed’s fault and that the party’s fortunes can be turned round by defenestrating the leader shows a lack of understanding of the depth of our problems around our positioning and image as a party, not just Ed’s as leader. We are not some stone age tribe that needs to sacrifice its chieftain to appease the gods when the crops fail – we are a modern social democratic party that has slipped in the polls because a populist rightwing party is proving more able to articulate our working class’ supporters anger with the government and the political and economic system than we are.
Responding to this is not easy but nor does it require hysteria and blind panic.
The idea that we will improve our position through a bout of infighting, rather than by uniting and showing our confidence in Ed as leader, so that his own confidence in responding to UKIP is bolstered, is nuts.
It is also playing into the hands of a feral media that feeds like a pack of vultures on Labour leaders. The press, a good slice of whom have corporate vendettas against Ed because of the phone-hacking saga and his taking on the Mail when they attacked his late father, glory in destroying Labour leaders. We shouldn’t help them. When our leader is being treated disgustingly and bullied by them, for instance with the deliberate use of unflattering camera angles in order to try to turn him into a figure of ridicule, our duty is to form ranks around him and tell people the truth about the real Ed Miliband, not help them undermine him by giving them the other story they love, that of a divided party.
The Tories must be rubbing their hands with glee. They are facing an existential threat and about to lose their second by-election in a row and suddenly we distract the media with our favourite party game, “stab the leader in the back”.
The idea that this wouldn’t have happened if we had elected a different leader is nonsense. Same vicious press, same Tory attack strategy even if it had been David Miliband not Ed Miliband. They would have even used the same attack lines: geeky, metropolitan, intellectual. The nasty photos were already in play before 2010 when the media ambushed David looking awkward with a banana! The only difference is that we would have had a less united party before the attacks got really nasty, not after them. If Alan Johnson emerged in the way the media have speculated about he would be mocked as too old, too associated with the Blair era, too laid-back.
I committed to back Ed Miliband at the start of his leadership campaign in 2010. I didn’t think he was perfect and I didn’t and don’t agree with every dot and comma of his beliefs but I thought he was the best candidate on offer and had a vision for a fairer, social democratic Britain that is one I would like to see fulfilled and an ability to unite a party that badly needed healing.
I am proud of my decision and I stand by it. He is a man of integrity, decency and character who deserves our loyalty. He is facing a concerted attempt at character assassination which would break the spirit of any normal politician. It wasn’t some different guy who gave blisteringly good speeches at the 2012 and 2013 conferences and stood up to Murdoch and the energy companies – it was the same guy we are asking people to vote for. I believe he can win next May’s General Election and can be a great Labour Prime Minister if he does.
Let’s see all the energy wasted last week put to better use in the remaining six months of the campaign promoting a Labour victory.