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The Today Programme interviewers give Ed Miliband a tough time, but they treat David Cameron and George Osborne almost as royalty
The story of the last few months for Labour is its far-reaching policy review and an impressive recovery in Wales, insists Peter Hain – not the tales of discord peddled by the media, nor of simmering discontent with the party’s new leader.
For most Labour supporters, May 6, 2011 was not a morning to remember. The party had just suffered disastrous results in Scotland, failed to make predicted local election gains in England, and seen its leader Ed Miliband end up on the wrong side of the referendum result.
The month that followed hasn’t been all that enjoyable either. Shadow chancellor Ed Balls made front page news for his supposed role in the feud between former leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, while Miliband struggles to exert his authority over a party which, if a string of newspaper reports are to be believed, is beginning to wonder whether it chose the right brother to lead it.
There is a glimmer of optimism, however: across the River Severn, Labour proved that it can still win elections. At May’s polls, Welsh Labour secured its best result since the creation of the Welsh Assembly, with Carwyn Jones re-elected as Labour’s first minister. But Peter Hain, Labour’s shadow Welsh secretary, and one of Ed Miliband’s closest allies, is in no mood to celebrate. “The most frustrating thing was that the media saw it through a Conservative Central Office prism,” begins Hain’s postelection digest. “They ignored Wales completely and focused exclusively on Scotland, where they somehow blamed Ed Miliband for our poor showing there when there were actually peculiarly Scottish reasons.”
Pressed on those reasons, he mentions the popularity of SNP leader Alex Salmond and “a campaign that wasn’t up to scratch”, both of which presumably must be partly down to Miliband.
But there is no let-up as Hain continues to vent his frustration. “The media also bought the Tory line that we should have won over 1000 councillors, when none of us expected to have as many as we did. There were some internal soundings within the Labour Party that seemed to echo that Tory propaganda, but the truth is we bounced back from a truly awful result in May last year,” he says, citing 800 council seat gains.
So why this supposed distorted coverage? “Labour has never enjoyed, except for a period under Tony Blair, any kind of objectivity or warmth from the media, so perhaps people shouldn’t be surprised,” Hain answers, pursuing a bugbear which saw him suggest that the BBC had deliberately airbrushed Miliband out of its Royal Wedding coverage.
“There’s a supine attitude in the media generally, including broadcasters, to Tory propaganda. There are obviously Tory-supporting newspapers who lead the pack, but the rest tamely follow behind. The Today Programme interviewers give Ed Miliband a tough time, but they treat David Cameron and George Osborne almost as royalty. I’ve been struck by how normally very good journalists swallow all this nonsense, and I hope journalists of integrity will start judging things on their merit rather than according to a Tory script.”
But whatever the Tory-leaning sympathies of some newspaper proprietors, the media might argue that there isn’t any other script to follow: after last May’s general election Labour spent six months choosing a new leader, before disappearing into a string of policy reviews. Against the peculiar backdrop of Labour being both the incumbent in Cardiff and the opposition at Westminster, Labour’s win in Wales did not fit comfortably into the story – and, right now, Ed Miliband badly needs a story other than ongoing tales of fraternal feuding and a lack of direction.
Having acted as the vice-chairman of Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign, and as just one of five shadow cabinet members to have voted for him, Hain is chairing the party’s National Policy Forum and leading a review, Refounding Labour, into how the party operates. “The party has never undertaken quite this degree of consultation through the social media, and this is a detailed conversation with union leaders, MPs and figures up and down the party,” states Hain. “There is a real enthusiasm to drive forward the re-founding of Labour”.
While the sprawling policy review process – around 25 are under way, with Liam Byrne acting as the review chief – has its critics, Hain is encouraged by Miliband’s approach. “One of the reasons I backed Ed is that he was prepared to show some humility and be honest about where we were successful and where we had fallen short,” he explains, arguing that the party had become “too managerial and didn’t keep in touch with our grassroots on a range of issues”.
And what Miliband envisages, says Hain, is for the Labour Party to be “genuinely re-founded as a different party from the Tories, the Lib Dems, and what we are now: a party to march with the times”. He believes a post-election rise in membership, particularly amongst young supporters, shows that Miliband has “been very effective in developing a critique around the squeezed middle and the betrayal of the next generation”, with the message offering a “positive alternative while driving home the pessimism that the Tories and Lib Dems are offering – it will increasingly strike a chord”.
However, the detail will remain scant for now. “In 2007 the Tories made a fundamental mistake, which we won’t repeat, when they laid out policy which was too detailed in some areas,” Hain argues, singling out the promise to cut inheritance tax, which “we rammed down their throats at every opportunity”. Instead, his ‘direction of travel’ document will be followed by a year of consultation, with Hain stressing the need to “remain flexible, especially given Draconian cuts and the uncertainties of the British economy. People underestimate Ed Miliband at their peril – he is laying the ground for filling in the policy detail.”
Despite Hain’s optimism, many of his party colleagues seem unable to throw themselves whole-heartedly behind the new regime. He admits that there are “some elements who perhaps didn’t vote for Ed and are entitled to express their views”, but he is unimpressed with the dissenters’ contribution. “I don’t see any positive policy ideas. There’s all this stuff about vision and being decisive, but there’s no content. If they come up with a good idea then I’m sure Ed and I will be interested, but there’s no sign of that.”
What about reports that some Labour MPs still wish that a different candidate – Ed’s older brother David, say – had become leader? Hain insists that “people have come to terms” with the result, and while “there’s a bit of nostalgia for a golden age under Tony Blair, that is not where we are”.
So Blairism is over then? “Blairism was a creed for an age, and that age is not now,” argues Hain, who as a minister was always personally loyal to Blair, while being a few notches to his left. So are there still Blairites and Brownites? “I dare say there are, and people are entitled to call themselves what they like,” he replies diplomatically. What about New Labour? Does that still exist in 2011? “The best of New Labour has to be part of the future agenda,” Hain replies, attempting to soothe any worries that Labour is lurching leftwards. “We must maintain our pro-business stance as well as a pro-trade union stance; the two aren’t incompatible, as Blairism showed.”
Could the answer be found in the ‘Blue Labour’ movement, led by the academic Lord Glassman, which argues for more conservative social policies to win back disillusioned working class voters? “Whatever Blue Labour is, whatever purple Labour is, it’s just part of a healthy debate,” Hain smiles, refusing to sign up to any one doctrine. “So let a thousand colours bloom at the present time, and then the National Policy Forum, under my chairmanship, will decide the policy detail, and Ed Miliband will decide the direction.”
Nearly two decades on from entering Parliament, Hain has outlasted many of his former colleagues by remaining on the frontbench, and is now playing a central part in shaping the party’s post-government future. He admits that opposition is frustrating, though the extra time is allowing him to pen his autobiography, but insists that a return to power is realistic, citing the Conservative Party’s failure to win more than 35 per cent of the vote at the last election, and arguing that while “David Cameron is seen by the public as prime ministerial, governments very rarely gain support in office, and we would have to do very badly for that to happen”.
So why aren’t more of his senior colleagues willing to help out? “Just because you take a bit of time out doesn’t mean, as Ken Clarke is famously showing, that you can’t come back. People have to make their own choice,” he replies. Anyone in particular? “I hope, and expect, David Miliband to come back, as a leading figure – and hopefully as part of the next Labour cabinet, led by his brother.”
To ensure that happens, Hain has a small task to complete first. “Provided we re-found our party, there is everything to play for,” he insists. Judging by the mood of the press, and perhaps the party, time is of the essence to complete that not inconsiderable task.