Monday, 14 October 2013

On political capital

As the Labour party is desperately looking for a winning strategy in the 2015 general election, its leader recently purged the shadow cabinet of old Blairites, those former cabinet members who were in the reformist or Blair's camp as opposed to those (like Ed Miliband himself) who were in Gordon Brown's camp.

The viciousness of the internecine fights between the Blairites and Brownites under Tony Blair's government is hardly forgotten and the publication of the memoirs of Gordon Brown's right hand man for the dirty stuff is a recent reminder of how electorally toxic the former chancellor's influence was in British politics.

However, the current leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, is a protege of Brown and he has slowly yet ruthlessly ensured that Brown's minions have won the day. His latest reshuffle has catapulted Brownites into all leading cabinet positions, such as Rachel Reeves (dubbed 'boring snoring' by the press) into the welfare portfolio, whilst prominent Blairites such as Jim Murphy had to bite the dust.

The most interesting appointment however is Tristram Hunt replacing the Blairite Stephen Twigg. Twigg was the butt of many jokes in the press over the last couple of years, mainly because he struggled to define Labour policy in education, the department he covered as shadow education secretary. His was a difficult job since Michael Gove introduced radical 'ueber-Blairite' reforms in the first two years when becoming education secretary, by widening the academy programme which had started under Blair to primary schools and promoting so-called free schools.

The dilemma for Twigg was that Gove only put rocket boosters under what was in effect Blairite policy, and Twigg (and the Labour Party) had previously endorsed it. Being in opposition however changes the game and now Twigg found himself in a position to have to oppose something he originally advocated. Frustratingly, Twigg also found that the goal posts had shifted with Ed Miliband becoming party leader. Miliband had become leader with the votes of the trade unions and he now had to pay them back. This meant that education policy had to appease the teaching unions (who were steadfastly opposed to any reforms, Blairite or otherwise), and his leader bore down on him to comply.

Policy paralysis ensued for Twigg. He couldn't do as he wanted, and wouldn't have done as Miliband urged him to. He found is ignominious end two weeks ago. Being kicked out of his shadow job is one thing. However watching his successor to do exactly what he wanted but couldn't do is another.

The irony wont be lost on Twigg that only two days after his appointment to shadow education secretary, Twigg's successor, Tristram Hunt, a posh boy with a Cambridge PhD, executed a perfect policy u-turn. He announced that, henceforth, it would be Labour party policy to support free schools (independent of local authorities).

The morale of the story? To be radical in policy development, you cannot have the whiff of being a reformer. What you need to have is the reputation of a loyal supporter of your leader and somebody who always toes the party line. If that's the case, then you have political capital to burn.

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