John McTernan: Miliband should shoot messengers

The Labour leader should press ahead with the strategy that he has chosen, whether it is right or wrong, writes John McTernan

Ed Milibands successes have brought pessimism from some insiders. Picture: Getty

Well that’s it. All over, red rover. We may be 14 months from the General Election but it’s been called for the Tories. Not my view, but that of eight Labour-supporting think-tanks who wrote in those terms to the Guardian this week.

Well that’s it. All over, red rover. We may be 14 months from the General Election but it’s been called for the Tories. Not my view, but that of eight Labour-supporting think-tanks who wrote in those terms to the Guardian this week.

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In combat they call it “friendly fire”, or “blue on blue”. This is more like “red on red” or, more honestly, “yellow on red”. For is there anything more cowardly than publishing an incomprehensible, jargon-laden letter that will only be used to beat up the Labour leadership? Got something useful to say? Say it privately. Got an attack? Make it openly. Just please don’t pretend that you’re being helpful.

One of the most important talents in politics is to be able to hold your nerve and stick to your strategy. Events come and go, but if your analysis is right, then you should not let yourself get distracted in any way. Just keep punching out your lines. Message discipline is the most boring of techniques but the most telling over time.

The challenge is always, though, with the clever ones – or, at least, the ones who think they’re clever. On the one hand, they get bored by repetition. On the other, they always know how to improve your messaging. Except they can’t. At best they are self-indulgent, at worst deeply damaging.

Obama’s strategist David Plouffe put it well: “Don’t let the monkeys in the cheap seats throw peanuts at you.” Your team – in its broadest sense – need to understand that they aren’t running the show. When they are the leadership it’ll be their call, until then it’s yours – and yours alone. This is always worse for progressive parties – there’s something about the Left that makes it easily spooked. Partly it’s lacking that innate sense Conservatives have of being born to rule.

It was former Australian Labour prime minister Bob Hawke who once said progressives have a voice in their ear whispering “You’re not meant to be here”. Partly it’s just wanting to discuss everything all the time and not being willing just to knuckle down and do it.

The Tories may dislike being known as the “Stupid Party” but it’s way better than being too clever by half like some of the Labour Party. And here we return to those blessed think-tanks. Most people won’t have read their letter, but had they done they would have been none the wiser about what exactly they think Ed Milband should be campaigning for.

It was polysyllabic persiflage of a very high order indeed. Towards the co-production of transformative holistic empowerment – you know the kind of thing. Run the round robin through an online readability index and it is identified as requiring the reading age of a post-doctoral researcher. Not going to be the main topic of discussion at the school gate, on the bus or in a taxi.

This outburst coincides with an odd period in politics. The coalition has run out of steam. It has no new policies for government, yet cannot quite start the divorce that is required for a full-blooded election campaign. Thus we get invented events like the debate between Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg about Europe. Two men who will never be prime minister talk about an issue which one in ten voters really cares about. Whoop-dee-doo.

Everywhere there is a sense of politics being becalmed. Except that things keep happening. First SSE announces a price freeze and a restructure, then Ofgem establishes an inquiry into the “Big Six” energy companies. This is Labour leader Ed Miliband’s flagship policy for the 2015 General Election – and it’s being done now.

People talk a lot about a disjunction in modern politics; well the biggest disjunction is between the impact Miliband is having from the opposition benches and the pessimism of some Labour insiders. Somewhat perversely, the better Ed does the more worried they become. Even now pencils are being sharpened to write warning pieces that Ed’s success in changing regulatory policy over energy companies is a huge personal blow to him because it means his policy is already being implemented. No, I don’t really get it either but these are Labour Party internals so logic and proportion don’t mean anything.

What should Miliband be doing now? This is time for a Willie Whitelaw figure to go around “stirring up apathy”. To be honest, that probably wouldn’t work nowadays. In today’s remorseless 24-hour media cycle Lord Whitelaw uttering his catchphrase “splendid, splendid” would be interpreted as a damaging attack on the leadership.

In the absence of a grandee, Ed needs to keep on with the strategy he has chosen. It may be right – and I think it is – or it may be wrong – which voices off mutter. Whatever. It is the strategy and it is too late to stop now.

The irony of Labour’s current position is twofold. First, the demand for clarity about what Miliband stands for comes not only as his policies are being adopted by Ofgem, but just as a slew of policy reviews come to fruition. If you want substance, Labour has it in spades.

But that’s not really the point. The second irony is that the think-tank chiefs who wrote to the Guardian are actually prompted by the vagaries of daily polling. Though they could tell you 100 reasons why they are concerned about programmatic specificity, they are really just spooked by an apparent drop in Labour’s poll lead. I say vagaries advisedly; these polls which are now published daily move up and down – the point is always the average, the trend.

But very clever people are as susceptible to being stupid as the ordinary man or woman in the street – sometimes more so. Always remember, most polls have a margin of error of +/- three points. Most movement is meaningless.

The lesson of the week for Ed? When a think-tank tells you to be bold, reach for your revolver.