Fraser Nelson reviews the week in politics
At Labour party conference in Manchester last week, David Miliband’s supporters could be spotted at 20 paces. They were the ones walking around in a daze, still not quite able to take in what
had happened. They felt that their man had not so much lost as been assassinated, by a trade union hit squad which now seems to hold the balance of power in the Labour party. In the bars, some of
Miliband’s campaigners were trying to reconcile themselves to the way elections are fought within the party. ‘They stole it fair and square,’ one grumbled. There was no talk of
fightback. The defeat is final.
The trade union leaders, by contrast, were walking around Manchester with a regal air — congratulating each other on what was, admittedly, an incredible victory. There may be no vast
political difference between David and Ed Miliband, but they had been chosen to represent two warring tribes: those who wish to preserve the New Labour project, and those who wish to destroy it.
One of Ed Miliband’s aides estimates that the unions spent an extraordinary £1.8 million campaigning for him. Under Labour’s peculiar system, union members’ votes count for
a third of the total. So while Labour MPs and members has preferred David, their verdict was overturned.
Just what have the unions purchased for all that money? There was not much indication in Ed Miliband’s main speech. Having been so close to the unions, his mission is to create some distance
— but vowing opposition to ‘unreasonable strikes’ tells little about his intent. For the first time in four months of speechmaking, he revealed he would be prepared to support
certain ‘painful’ cuts. To hear the applause, one would never have imagined that fewer than a third of Labour members had made him their first choice. Loyalty in public, moans kept
private: this was the order of the week.
What unnerves Labour is the manner of Ed’s victory. At the start of the campaign, each major union was backing a different candidate. Andy Burnham had Unison, Ed Miliband had the GMB, and Ed
Balls had Unite. ‘With the unions split, we had a chance,’ one of Balls’s supporters told me. ‘But back in July, they met in a smoke-filled room and all decided to pick a
“stop David” candidate. That turned out to be Ed.’ Their real weapon was this vast voter database — names and numbers of 1.5 million eligible voters. ‘They’d
call them up saying, “Hello, Janet. Do your duty and vote for Ed.” We had nothing to match it.’
Blame Tony Blair. He changed the party and its mindset, but not its structures. The unions even managed to stop John Prescott becoming Labour party treasurer, using their block vote to install
their own keeper of the purse strings. When Ed Miliband declared that ‘the era of New Labour has passed’, it seemed little more than a formality. And this is why a cheer went up in Tory
central office when his victory was announced. Not because they feared David Miliband, but because it seemed that Labour is finally discarding that piece of New Labour kryptonite which had rendered
so many Tories so powerless for so long.
The wielders of that kryptonite have chosen to flee rather than fight. The likes of John Hutton, Alan Milburn, John Reid and James Purnell have already left parliament. The ‘Progress’
movement, supposedly the breeding ground for young New Labourites, is dwindling — and reduced to holding meetings in a Manchester venue named the Comedy Store. The most senior of David
Miliband’s remaining supporters is Jim Murphy, a former Europe minister who dislikes London and spends as much time as he can in Glasgow. ‘We have no torch-bearer,’ complained a
newish Labour MP. ‘It’s over.’
When I met Alistair Darling, the former Chancellor, he was literally counting the days until he would be released from the Labour front bench — as if he were a prisoner awaiting parole. He
spent conference talking about the need for a credible policy on the deficit and why VAT has to rise, because high income taxes will chase people out of the country. His tough message was listened
to in polite silence by an audience that does not expect to hear such words from the Labour front bench again. Especially not if Ed Balls becomes the new shadow chancellor. He has some claim to the
job, having proven during the leadership campaign that he can land the hardest blows on the Tories. It is precisely this skill, ambition and brutality which make him Ed Miliband’s biggest
problem. The two loathe each other (both were Gordon Brown’s advisers, and fell out when they became Cabinet rivals) but to deny Balls the job of shadow chancellor would make an enemy of the
most dangerous man in the parliamentary Labour party.
To give him the job, though (perhaps with his wife, Yvette Cooper, as shadow home secretary) would grant him extraordinary power. He learned from Mr Brown how to use the purse strings to control
his colleagues’ agenda. His weakness for indebtedness and unfunded spending would make Labour easier to attack as ‘deficit deniers’. But George Osborne has never quite managed to
mount a defence which is as ferocious as Ed Balls’s attack. For this reason, many Conservatives still regard Balls as the most dangerous member of the shadow Cabinet.
As James Forsyth pointed out last week, Ed Miliband has inherited many advantages. He has a party machine which is still capable of vicious attack, with a healthy number of MPs and a monopoly claim
to the anti-government vote. But his unpopularity in the south of England (the greatest single problem for Labour) is a serious handicap. As Iain Duncan Smith knows, a leader can struggle in the
Commons if most MPs voted for someone else. And whatever pact he made with the unions may yet prove toxic.
The Tories plan to allow Miliband to enjoy his honeymoon, then start to focus on his links with the unions. They very nearly had the perfect piece of ammunition. On Saturday evening, the new Labour
leader bumped into Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, who jointly run the Unite trade union. Miliband walked up to both men, put an arm around each and said simply ‘thank you’. Had this
been caught on camera, the image would have haunted his leadership: it is impossible to imagine Neil Kinnock, let alone Tony Blair, doing likewise. And this is the upshot of last week’s
extraordinary events in Manchester. For better or worse, real Labour is back.