Forget about abolishing Labour’s shadow cabinet elections, Ed. That’s not the battle you need to win.

by Stephen Tall on June 25, 2011

It’s been a tough few weeks for Labour leader Ed Miliband, with increasing mutterings internally and in the media with his performance, culminating in this week’s ICM poll showing him to be less popular than Nick Clegg.

On the upside, he’s starting to score points off David Cameron at PMQs, a crucible of irrelevance to actual politics but crucial in shaping personality-obsessed journos’ perceptions. And, with today’s interview in the Guardian, he’s proposed a ‘reform agenda’ to open up the Labour party — in his words, “in order to have a good conversation at party conference, you’ve got to expand the conversation” (which is the kind of well-meaning but bland catechism that prompts Mili-doubters to despair).

Yet it was his proposal to abolish elections to Labour’s shadow cabinet which — oddly — Mr Miliband’s media team chose to highlight yesterday. Here are three thoughts on the move…

1) This is the wrong battle

Mr Miliband is right that, like all successful leaders, he needs to challenge his party; it’s how leaders move members from their comfort zone and into the public mainstream where elections are won. Tony Blair’s ‘Clause IV moment’, David Cameron’s ‘hug-a-huskie’ gimmicks: both succeeded in persuading the public that they were ‘for real’, that their parties could be trusted in government.

But Labour’s internal democracy is not the big issue on which Mr Miliband needs to challenge his party right now: that’s the economy, stupid. So far, the Labour leader appears quite content to follow his party’s lead in opposing the Coalition’s cuts in a haphazard way: sometimes indicating that he opposes them viscerally (as with his notorious speech to a TUC rally in March, likening anti-cuts protestors’ cause to that of the suffragettes, and the anti-apartheid and U.S. civil rights movements), at other times accepting the last Labour government made mistakes (Ed Miliband: We were wrong about the economy).

The result is confusion. Take, for example, Peter Mandelson’s infamous remark that New Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. In February, Mr Miliband countered: “I don’t think we can be ‘intensely relaxed’ about the filthy rich getting richer if you are seeing those on lower and middle incomes getting squeezed.” Yet this month, Mr Miliband stated, “I’m not only relaxed about them getting rich. I applaud it.”

Mr Miliband needs to spend some political capital — but he should do so on challenging his party to get real about the economic mess they left behind, and forget about picking battles about which the public doesn’t care a jot.

2) Policy matters, not personality

The Liberal Democrats do not elect their shadow cabinet. Historically, this was because there were (pre-1997) too few Lib Dem MPs for it to matter: everyone who wanted a portfolio to shadow could have one, and normally more than one. But since then there’s been no great pressure to democratise the leader’s patronage. I posed the question here last year, Should the Lib Dems elect our (shadow) cabinet members? The response in the comments was something of a shrug.

But does this mean the Lib Dems care less about internal party democracy? Absolutely not (as all our leaders have at some stage found out to their cost). But there’s a big difference within the Lib Dems compared with Labour.

First, our party democracy extends to policy — as was most recently shown with the Government’s U-turn on the NHS which was in large part forced by Lib Dem members passing a policy motion at the party’s spring conference.

Secondly, our party democracy is not governed by hierarchy as Labour’s is: all members are equal. In Labour’s leadership election, the vote of one MP was worth about 100 members. Such elitism is anathema to liberals. And not only is it right in principle that all members should be equal, but it’s canny politics, too. The Coalition Agreement itself was shaped in the knowledge that it would have to be approved by a special conference of members, all of whose vote would count for the same as Nick Clegg’s or Vince Cable’s. This strengthened the hands of the Lib Dem negotiators, who, quite justifiably, pointed out to their Tory counterparts that the formation of the Coalition depended on settling a deal to which the party could sign up. The ‘cult of leadership’ that tramples internal party democracy in both the Labour and Conservative parties does not exist within the Lib Dems.

3) But part of me will miss Labour’s internal elections

I’m a self-confessed election geek. Nor am I averse to a slice of nostalgia. So I have some sympathies with the Guardian’s Michael White:

It wasn’t long ago that annual elections to a Labour shadow cabinet, or its national executive (NEC), were an important part of the political season – like Wimbledon or Ascot. When X started making firebrand speeches or Y got himself thrown out of the Commons for misconduct, you knew the NEC ballot papers must have gone out or that he was planning to run for the shadow.

And the elections are of course of great historical interest. Who topped the ballot 15 years ago, in the last elections to the Labour shadow cabinet before Tony Blair’s three election victories made it a forgotten tradition? In order: Margaret Beckett, Ann Taylor, Clare Short, Gavin Strang, and Robin Cook (full list here). If that’s not the kind of thing that interests you, I doubt you’re the kind of person who will have made it this far through this article.

And finally

It’s not that I think Mr Miliband is wrong to abolish the shadow cabinet elections. I’m sure they’re an infernal, internal distraction. I’m even more sure that it restricts the leader’s ability to select the best MP for the job.

But this is mere displacement activity, attempting to demonstrate leadership on an issue that simply will not register with the public, when the Labour party desperately needs leadership on the issue that will decide the next election: the economy. As I argued here last week,

Labour is boxing itself into a corner where it’s entire strategy for the next general election depends on the economy tanking. That may still happen, it’s true. But if it doesn’t it’s Labour which needs to start thinking, and soon, on what economic basis it’s going to fight the Lib Dems and Conservatives at the next general election.

As it stands, even after a year of austerity Coalition government, Labour is still blamed by 40% of the public for the current public spending cuts, compared to only 24% blaming the Lib Dems / Conservatives. That’s the killer figure for Labour. And it’s the one which requires every drop of Mr Miliband’s political capital and attention.