While The Cat Is Away, The Mice Will Play
Mark Seddon is the former United Nations Correspondent and New York Bureau Chief for Al-Jazeera English TV. He reported from eighteen countries during that time, including North Korea, China, Haiti, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has interviewed, amongst others, Ban Ki-Moon, Lech Walesa, Tony Blair, Hans Blix, Michael Foot, Mia Farrow, and George Clooney. In a journalistic career spanning over twenty years, he has been Editor of Tribune and an elected member of the UK Labour Party's National Executive Committee. He has written for most British newspapers and many magazines, including The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Times, The Spectator, New Statesman, Private Eye, British Journalism Review and Country Life Magazine. For a number of years he was a Diarist at the London Evening Standard, and has also reported for, amongst others, the BBC and Sky TV. He lives in Buckingham, England.
“If a week is a long time in politics”, as Harold Wilson once said, two weeks away from politics on paternity leave is clearly an age. The Leader of Britain's official opposition, Ed Miliband returns this week to Parliament after a fortnight helping to change nappies, only to find that some on his own front bench have been busy doing some very public dirty washing of their own. While Ed has been away, the other Ed, Ed Balls was quoted in the New Statesman saying that he wouldn’t “follow crap” from his leader. Elsewhere it was reported that unapologetic Blairites, Hazel Blears, Pat McFadden and Ben Bradshaw had refused to serve in Ed Miliband’s Shadow Cabinet. If Ed Miliband has been having some sleepless nights of late, it probably won’t be because this unlovely triumvirate spurned his olive branch.
Meanwhile, the man who Miliband appointed as Shadow Chancellor, Alan Johnson has been launching a few broadsides of his own. Johnson was given the post – not on the strength of his knowledge of economics, he admits he has none, but because he was not Ed Balls. Yet Johnson, a former union leader himself, has curiously decided that now is the time to rake over the coals of Labour’s recent leadership contest and called for union influence over the party to be further reduced, thus proving the old adage that former poachers make worse gamekeepers. De-coded this means that Johnson and many other Blairites in the party have still not accepted that Ed Miliband won Labour’s election contest. For good measure Alan Johnson thinks that Labour’s commitment to a 50% higher rate of tax is a policy that should be dropped – and at a time when even George Osborne has no plans to do so. And what of David Miliband, who has maintained a diplomatic silence these past two months – and who many hoped might give his brother a clear run by getting out of politics altogether? According to his former campaigns manager, the usually taciturn Lisa Tremble; “David’s rediscovered his excitement in politics. He’s looking forward to the new challenges. He’s not going anywhere”.
A visitor from Mars would be utterly mystified by this outbreak of petty infighting at the top of Britain’s main Opposition party. Labour is currently ahead in the polls – at the last count some 5% in front of the Conservatives, and this is before the real effects of the Coalition’s austerity package has been felt. Ed Miliband’s commitment to maintain the higher level of tax, as well as his support for Labour’s links to the unions is being directly challenged. These challenges come significantly from a broad array of ‘New’ Labour Blairites. Unlike the Conservative Euro sceptics, the “bastards” who famously haunted John Major, this motley crew of perennially disgruntled ex Ministers, including Alan Milburn, and Charles Clarke – the Selwyn Froggitt of Labour politics - don’t have an agenda of their own. They spent most of the past decade demanding undying loyalty to Tony Blair, but seem incapable of offering it to a new leader who has barely been at the helm for two months. But if as part of a self fulfilling prophecy the polls start dipping for a divided Labour Party, they may yet begin to move against their new leader.
Ed Miliband needs to get a grip – and fast. Thus far, he has gone out of his way to being a consensual leader and one who has sought to build a Shadow Cabinet which reflects the different wings of the party. His election, against the odds, showed that he was someone not to be underestimated. He gives the impression of a man who is in for the long haul and avoids grabbing headlines for the sake of it. But to those fermenting trouble around him, his methodical ways and consensual style, has them complaining that he is “not making an impact’”and whispering that he is “Labour’s answer to Iain Duncan Smith”. This week, he needs to summon Alan Johnson to his study and explain in no uncertain terms that streams of public consciousness, however entertaining to some, are unacceptable – and if there are any repeats, Johnson will be welcome to resume his old postal round to Chequers. It is also imperative that he has his own man or woman running the Labour Party, now former General Secretary, Ray Collins has been sent to the House of Lords, and he should bury any remaining hatchet with Messrs Balls and Cooper and bring them firmly into the tent.
Above all, Ed Miliband needs a new narrative and new, popular policies for the very different times in which we now live. His job is to make Labour relevant again, especially to the large numbers of people who are suffering through no fault of their own the full rigours of ‘austerity Britain’. But he must be forgiven for wondering if this is how some people behave when Labour is ahead, what are they capable of if Labour is behind?