One of the oddest ideas in UK politics is that Labour chose ‘the wrong brother’. Surely the very idea that we had to choose between two sons of the same grandee and, oh, by the way, the Labour leadership was really the birthright of the eldest in any case, is absurd at every level.

The simple fact is that the seeds of Labour’s crushing defeat this week were sown when the Blair and Brown camps killed all of each others political heavyweights and replaced them universally with creatures of extreme patronage – special advisors to a man and woman – who were never tested as MPs to see if they were truly any good at politics off their own bat.

It’s often said that David Miliband was defeated by the unions, but this is to see that leadership election through a distorted lens. From the very start, it was assumed that the unions would be against him – yet it was also widely accepted that he was miles ahead in the race. His team’s gameplan was simply to stay ahead by keeping the lion’s share of the MPs and general membership vote. But over the weeks, he steadily lost that lead because he just couldn’t engage with MPs. When Ed turned out to be much better at chatting to people in corridors, David’s team started to panic. They resorted to threats – ‘you’ll never be in his government if you don’t support him’ – and reminders that he was Tony Blair’s chosen man.

The harsh reality, though, was first that the mood during the leadership contest was low and few really thought we could win in 2015, so government jobs didn’t feel like a serious option anyway. Second, everyone knew that until all the serious Blairite contenders were  killed off (Byers, Mllburn, Reid, Hutton and the rest) the idea that Blair regarded David Miliband as his successor was risible. Simply being Tony Blair’s last-ditch option was never going to be enough to help David Miliband to victory.

Most people who know the brothers know that they’re peas in a pod as far as being oddball geeks is concerned, and that Ed has the huge saving grace of being charming with individuals and small groups. I remember it was impossible to walk down a corridor without being grabbed by Ed for a chat. Whereas many MPs were at first puzzled then eventually troubled by receiving calls from ‘members of David’s campaign’ – based half-a-mile from Westminster – while David seemed unable to sell his candidature to them personally. David lost his huge lead not because of the unions – he lost it, and the vote, because he just isn’t very good at talking to people or expressing himself plausibly one-to-one without using silly black-box, wonk-type language.

David and Ed were not, of course, the sole expression of the new special-adviser aristocracy in the Labour Party. Indeed, with only rare exceptions, virtually every senior member of the shadow cabinet came out of what became a virtual policy of nepotism. Whereas Blair, Brown and most of their senior ministers had risen through their own mastery of the political arts – including the dark ones – the post Blair and Brown Labour Party yielded to a new aristocracy of former special advisers. And here is the terrible truth – they were exceptional backroom folk but simply weren’t much good at being ‘principals’. Under them, Labour hasn’t won a single major political election. Under their influence in cabinet then leadership in opposition, Labour lost both UK elections, both London mayoral elections and both Scottish elections – indeed Labour’s now been more or less wiped out in Scotland altogether and may well cease to exist in its coming form in the months to come.

The saddest thing about that Scottish wipe-out was that the 2010 intake from Labour in Scotland was of a strikingly high standard and none of them at all came from the ‘Labour aristocracy’ background. The Greg McClymonts, Willie Bains, Pamela Nashes. Indeed, the Scottish intake had this in common with many of the 2010 intake form England and Wales. What was noticeable, though, was that all such folk – with the exception of Chuka Umunna, were kept in the second rank of the shadow government, displaced by the special-adviser aristocracy in the shadow cabinet for no reason other than simple nepotism and metaphorical secret handshakes.

As Labour chooses a new leader, it must behead its failed old aristocracy and find a leader wo entered in the 2010 parliament (who will have been in parliament by up to 10 years by the next election) who has made themselves. This is not to say that no former special advisers at all need apply – Liz Kendall is obviously someone who fits the bill in every sense and she’s manifestly done that for herself – it’s to say that Labour has to pick a leader on the basis of personal traits and wide public appeal, not on the basis of being part of the in-crowd.

Dan Jarvis? Stella Creasy? Chuka Umunna? Sarah Champion? Steve Rotherham? There are other truly gifted, smart and appealing folk from the 2010 intake untouched by the horrors of the years of the failure of the aristocrats. If one of them gets a chance because Labour’s truly serious about finding the right leader, Labour could win in 2020. If the door stays open to aristocrats-only then Labour’s screwed for many years.


13 Responses to Labour must behead its failed aristocracy
  1. Won’t the planned redistricting and reduction of Parliament to 600 seats in 2020 favor the Conservatives?

    • As we saw last time, these things are terrifically hypothetical and not worth much this far out. If Labour is able to win marginals back it’ll win in 2020. If it isn’t, it won’t. If they elect a previous cabinet minister as leader now, they’ll be out for years.

  2. […] problems will not go away.  They appointed the wrong brother, (though the choice it seems may have been the wrong family) and he was too far to the left for England, too far to the right for Scotland.  He epitomises the […]

  3. Interesting article. However, whilst David may not have been as chummy as his bro, he did at least come across as PM material (and I say that as a non-Labour supporter). May I suggest that if Labour wants to be in Government, when it chooses its next leader, it considers the voting masses; not just the so-called ‘core vote’.

  4. […] now it’s clear, from what Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, and even Eric Joyce have had to say over the weekend, failure at the top of the party, where private polling told them […]

  5. An interesting read. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Stephen.

      • Out of interest, what’s your take on Jim Murphy? Do you think he can continue in post (on the grounds that he really didn’t have enough time before the election), or does he need to go (either because the result demands it, or simply because he lost his seat)?

        • Jim wasn’t elected just for the 6 months – we all knew when he got elected that Labour was going to take a kicking. In addition, it seems to have been forgotten by some that Jim initially took criticism for STANDING for Westminster rather than simply waiting to be elected (if he is) at Holyrood.

          The harsh reality for Labour is that if Jim goes now then there’s no-one to take over who will be able to hold the party in Scotland together. The Labour Party will become the Unite Party and will simply die.

        • Thanks for taking the time to answer. I don’t disagree – I just wondered how you saw it.

  6. My usual answer to anyone who said the Labour Party picked the wrong brother, was that their problem was that the Milibands were the choice. This was almost always met with a shake of the head. Somehow David’s team managed to persuade everyone that he wasn’t the geek his brother was.

    Seriously, Pamela Nash was one of John Reid’s special advisors. As for being of a high standard, as one of Ms Nash’s constituents the first we heard about her over the last few years was her jolly to Glastonbury. She was so bad she couldn’t get the backing of her local party officials who were briefing against her in the local newspaper long before the election campaign.

    • Pam was John’s researcher, that’s a very different thing from being a SpAd. She was young when she was elected as a political compromise between a local man and my own researcher at the time – from the area – who was considered a bit on the hard side by many (so she was, you know, pretty hard). She grew into the job very well, though. She’s a pretty amazing person, actually. I don’t know if you know her back-story, but she connects with a lot of people because of it.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *