I don’t have a great track record of memo-writing. Peter Mandelson once walked into Downing Street and a snapper caught a memo I had written about Labour’s attack strategy in his bundle of papers. Then, last year, a memo for Ed Miliband ahead of his first Prime Minister’s Questions that I had co-authored appeared in The Times (£). So consider this a pre-leak: what I would tell Ed Miliband’s new Chief of Staff, Tim Livesey, in the unlikely event that he asked…
Congratulations on the appointment, below are a few thoughts on how you might approach the job once you’ve got your feet under the desk.
Running Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is incredibly easy to do passably but very hard to do well.
For the most part, the Labour Party will be happy if you keep the ship afloat: get through the week with a bit of coverage, some attacks on the Tories, pay everyone’s wages and help Ed turn in a good performance at PMQs. The problem is that each week survived isn’t a week closer to victory, it’s another week less to complete the huge task of convincing the public that Labour deserves to govern again.
If you’re to be Mister “We’re-Not-Just-Here-to-Get-Through-the-Week” you need authority with the shadow cabinet, with MPs, the unions, and the officials and advisers you will be leading.
To get that authority, you need to tell people that Labour are sleepwalking toward defeat (even if you personally think it isn’t quite as bad as that). There’s no real need for you if the Luke Akehurst thesis – that everything would be fine were it not for all the people saying it isn’t – is true. But if you are coming in to solve a problem then suddenly acquire a purpose.
That purpose should mean every adviser, even every Shadow Cabinet member, feels that their careers are in your hands, not in Ed’s. That way, Ed can use his famous ability to get along with everyone but without creating the kind of competitions for his affection that make it hard to face up to the problems or tempt people into cop-outs like blaming the media or invisible Blairite saboteurs.
You are arriving as someone who has worked at the heart of Government but without a long history in Labour politics. If there is no sense of crisis, there will be pressure for you to stay up on the bridge and keep your nose out of the political engine-room: things like whipping, MP’s expenses, the NEC or relations with the unions.
Don’t. If you do, you’ll always be being told what’s possible and what isn’t and you will never be able to tell good political intelligence from just being advised to take the path of least resistance.
Instead, try and maximise the advantage of being an outsider. You can be the one who asks the question that no one who wants to be a Parliamentary candidate is going to ask: should we really be supporting this candidate for a seat if we don’t rate him, just because he’s mates with such-and-such? Are we sure it is wise to be running a London Mayoral candidate who appears to have learnt so little since he lost an election four years ago? Do we really have to keep pretending that if Party Conference votes for something he disagrees with, Ed would meekly carry it out if he became Prime Minister?
Finally, remember that you have a unique challenge that no previous Labour chief of staff can advise you on: you are working for a man who himself was a very senior and highly rated adviser until relatively recently. You will have to rely on his experience in one crucial area – he is one of a handful of people in the office to have worked in the higher echelons of a General Election campaign and the only person in the office who has worked near the top of a campaign that won.
But it will always bias him towards thinking that he should personally be involved in every decision, that he should decide who is in the room and who isn’t and that if he only had a few more Ed Milibands on his staff, his problems would be solved. He needs to consciously give you space to have authority over his closest and oldest advisers and, ultimately, over his own day to day activities.
The next year is set to be a rough one but let other people worry about how to get through it. The Government has many more things to worry about on a day to day basis. If you can get to the end of this year and say, “in the last year I have spent more time worrying about May 7th 2015 than George Osborne has”, then you’ll have done the Labour Party a powerful service.
Steve Van Riel
Centreground Political Communications
- Ed Miliband’s team search for reasons to be cheerful (guardian.co.uk)
- Miliband names his chief of staff (newstatesman.com)
- Ed Miliband appoints archbishop’s adviser as chief of staff (guardian.co.uk)