John Harris

Journalist & Author

Alan Johnson: enforcer – or mutineer? | John Harris

While Ed Miliband has been on paternity leave, the Blairite old guard has been treacherous

The Labour party may have blessed Britain with two weeks of statutory paternity leave, but on this evidence its leader should have wet the baby’s head and headed straight back to work. How the mice have played – not least Alan Johnson, who was given his job as shadow chancellor and “enforcer” so as to steady the shadow cabinet, but apparently transformed into a proper troublemaker.

Over the weekend he used an interview in the Times and a spot on the BBC’s Politics Show to question Ed Miliband’s beliefs in an enduring 50p top-rate of tax and a graduate tax. Yesterday, his voice was among those that cropped up in a hatchet-job run by the Times – titled “the fall of new Labour”, and focused on the supposed illegitimacy of the younger Miliband’s leadership win. This time, Johnson’s words were less than incendiary, and in any case, his people claimed they had been made at a conference dinner, before he got his new job. No matter: his relatively mild contribution took its place among seditious quotes from no end of former New Labour high-ups. Like this one, from Margaret Hodge: “Ed got the job – David won the contest.” Brilliant.

So it is that the coalition gets away with murder. For sure, announcements from Labour drop into my inbox by the score: “Government backtracking on its NHS promises … Labour accuses government of deception over arts cuts … Pupil premium turns out to be a complete con.” Reasonably often, they approximate the righteous ire one feels when witnessing what the government is up to. But they are like lines in search of a song for which no one has even written a chorus: fractured, lacking a coherent thread, and always in danger of neglecting glaring opportunities. On the activists’ website LabourList, a former councillor recently asked a very pertinent question: “What exactly is Labour’s policy towards the axing of the education maintenance allowance? I think we’re opposed to it, but I’ve very little to base that assumption on and there’s certainly no effective Labour-led campaign to save it.” Quite so – but what chance, when Labour guns are still rattling out internal battles?

Ed Miliband’s first seven weeks have seen him doing better than his foes predicted, but he continues to cut a lonely figure: apparently set on a promising kind of modernised social democracy, readying himself for a blank-page policy review, and strafed by hostile fire. The Brownites who once clustered around Ed Balls mistrust him, not just for denying their man the job he wanted, but because his more pluralist instincts and insistence on the importance of civil liberties make him look both exotic and dangerous. The Blairites, as ever, neurotically fear the fabled lurch to the left, and will not go quietly. Exactly what tired old narcissists such as Peter Mandelson and Alan Milburn have to offer is unclear, but that hardly stops them. Meanwhile, the unthinking mass of Labour MPs wait for a sign, as tussling about the immediate future continues.

Those taking a pop at the leadership from the right are sticking to a manual that was outmoded five years ago, and that current conditions render irrelevant. In more benign times the Blair-Brown regime bowed to a crass, illusory idea of the centre-ground: now, with the coalition pushing politics even further to the right, too many Labour politicians seem to be acquiescing in the other side’s world-view. They should go back to some plain facts. At the election the Tories got only 36% of the vote; now they have entered government, the Lib Dems’ poll rating barely scrapes double figures. In a couple of recent polls, Labour has actually been in first place. You never know: with enough thought, perhaps they could oppose the government on the basis of a different vision of the future. More to the point, if they don’t, the question will be screamed: what exactly is Labour for?

When he returns to the office, Miliband needs to hold the more capable, on-message members of the shadow cabinet – Andy Burnham is a good example – even closer. As one former Labour insider told me yesterday, as an interim measure he could also mark the imminent policy review’s halfway mark by formalising half a dozen points that denote where he wants to go – 50p, the graduate tax, a high pay commission – and using the old Blairite trick of putting them to the membership via a plebiscite, so as to issue a succinct “Shut up”.

Above all, he needs to get to grips with a profound gap between a terrifyingly ambitious project to forever re-tilt the balance between public and private, and Labour politicians who only seem able to take one of three options – staying silent, taking issue with the coalition’s plans only on the basis of nitpicking, or making internecine mischief. The first two are a dereliction of duty: the third, surely, borders on madness.

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