The inside man

Posted On: 
19th September 2013

For years Michael Dugher worked in the backrooms of New Labour’s Downing Street operation. Now an MP, and Ed Miliband’s media fixer, the insider’s insider is counting down the days until Labour returns to power

Michael Dugher is in his Commons office, desperately trying to move a Nottingham Forest beermat out of shot of The House’s photographer. He may be a loyal fan, but the Barnsley East MP is acutely aware that his constituents may not take kindly to support for anything other than their local team. Or as he jokes, “That’s 5,000 votes off the majority!”

A former aide to Gordon Brown, Geoff Hoon and others, Dugher is well versed in spotting potential PR nightmares. And he knows that it’s his skills in dealing with the media that have given him his current post of Shadow Minister without Portfolio.

The title means everything and nothing at the same time, giving him the freedom to act both as Ed Miliband’s communications fixer and attack dog. Few MPs are closer to the Leader.

But although he’s an insider’s insider, spending years in backrooms of trade unions and the party as it moved from Opposition to Government, Dugher is keen to stress his politics and his worldview come from South Yorkshire.

And his deep roots in the mining community mean he doesn’t have to prove his credentials locally, despite his affection for a certain football club from the midlands. The proudest picture on his wall is from the National Coal Mining Museum, listing the names of pits that are now wards in his constituency. One of the pits, Yorkshire Main, was sunk by his grandmother’s family just over 100 years ago. He grew up in the village of Edlington, steeped in the traditions of working men’s clubs and miners’ gala days. “You would come out of the backdoor of our house and see the wheel and the pit buildings. Even though my dad went into Doncaster to work on the railways, it was the focal point of the village,” he says.

As Labour tries to reconnect with the voters, Dugher knows he has to make sure Westminster is talking the language of Barnsley East. His conversation is peppered with earthy phrasemaking, not least his frequent attempts to puncture the ‘commentariat’ view of politics. “It’s b*llocks, really” is his favourite summary.

As Vice Chair (Communications) of the party, he is the man in charge of the Shadow Cabinet’s media strategy. It’s a job that he did in Downing Street, but although he says that he’s no longer “imprisoned by the inertia of the Whitehall civil service”, there are downsides.

“I have the famous ‘Grid’, which is much harder in Opposition in Government. I now look back Government is a piece of cake. In Government you tend to make the news, in Opposition you have to get into the news more. In Government all you are really doing is about choreography, which is why I can’t understand why they [the Coalition] are so bad at it.”

Dugher is under no illusions about the way Miliband’s stand on Murdoch and Leveson has made his job more difficult. Yet having been on the front line, he firmly backs his boss. “For Tony Blair and a lot of the people around him, there was a sense in the mid-90s that there was an overinflated view of the power of the press, that it was the key to everything. But also there was a feeling that you could snake charm the media and that snake would never come and bite you on the arse. If you look at all the people credited for having very good media skills during that period, Byers, Blunkett, Blair, Brown, all of them that snake absolutely bit them. Not least because of that experience, I know where the realities of that relationship are.”

He says the rise of the internet has changed the balance of power between the media and politicians in fundamental ways, pointing out that some print journalists now compare themselves to “miners in the early 1990s, their industry declining away”.

Dugher says that the key to his job is not just dealing with events but also ‘setting the weather’, and says Miliband’s leadership has shown the long-term importance of  “doing the right thing”.

“You can’t second guess events or the public. If you approach politics by walking into a room and deciding where most people are, you get found out”. He also says Labour needs not just policy but a connection with voters’ everyday concerns. Emily Thornberry’s call for a longer prison sentence for Stuart Hall is one example. “She felt very strongly and we did as a Labour frontbench that that sentence was too lenient and that we were outraged about it, never mind the public. But there is also another lesson which is I do think you’ve got to emotionally connect with the public as well. We are not running the IPPR, this is not a series of think tank lectures. Actually understanding how people feel, their insecurity, talking to their anxieties, that the opportunities for their kids are not as good as they had, things like that are really, really important.”

As a former aide to Ken Jackson during his leadership of the AEEU (which was later merged with other unions into Unite), Dugher also knows more than most about the union link. And he has some strong words about just why the Miliband reforms are necessary.

“I care very passionately about the unions and the link with the unions, but they’ve got to come to a decision: are they prepared just to manage decline? When we were in Government, the last 10 years could have been about the fact that we’ve had the biggest set of employment rights, trade union rights that any government has ever delivered in the whole of history. Forty two new rights in the Fairness at Work regulations, the right to statutory trade union recognition. That could have been a catalyst for organising on a really mass scale of why it is that only a minority of workers are actually in trade unions, getting into the new workplaces, understanding how the world of work had changed.

“The unions have so much to offer and actually at a local and regional level, they do a brilliant job. But at national level I got the impression that rather than do the hard work, the hard yards of the organising and recruiting, what happened is one declining union would be merged with another declining union and they’d all say we’ve got a million members again. And then when they fall through a million they’d find another union to merge with.

“That’s bad for the unions and bad for their members. I want to see the unions grow and be successful. I think they didn’t take that opportunity during the last government. And when you think about the growth in employment during the last government, the growth of the public sector as well, all of these things should have catalysts for the unions increasing and growing in strength. But history will judge them pretty badly because the reality is they didn’t.”

His frustration with some union leaders is palpable as his talks about life outside Government.  “Every single day I hate Opposition. Some people say ‘you’re quite good at it’. That is of no comfort whatsoever. I despise every single day of being in Opposition. I’m afraid there are some people who seem to give the impression of being quite comfortable in Opposition.

“Now it’s true, in Opposition you get more people turning up to go and march round the town centre, but that does nothing for my working class constituents or the union members I grew up with or frankly the union members as well. They might feel better, the banners might be out again, but it does nothing to improve lives for working people. The key to that is to we’ve got to get a Labour government elected and anyone who’s got any interest in that has got to get behind us.”

What does he think of the prospect of a merger between the PCS and Unite?  “For me, I thought with Unite the last merger was a merger too far. There is a bit of an argument that when the unions were slightly smaller and more focused they were able to more strongly represent those people in those workplaces and had a much stronger identity. I think they have lost a little of that.”

So, is Len McCluskey in tune with his members, members like on Michael Dugher?

“That’s a question for Len. He’s the general secretary of Unite, I’m a humble member. Only he can answer for his particular approach to the leadership. What I’d be interested in as a member is do I see my union campaigning for working people and our members on the issues that I outlined, issues that matter to us? I suspect a lot of union members, by the way, think there’s too much politics. If you’re at the car plant or if you’re at aerospace or whatever, they would rather you talk about the work at BAe Systems in Brough and maybe less time talking about Cuba, or Colombia or Nicaragua. They’d rather you were talking about Barnsley.”

Which brings him to his main case for the affiliation reform. “I think we have a good relationship with unions at regional level. We have a bumpy relationship with unions, as has always been the case, at national level. But at a local level we have virtually no relationship. Something like 20,000 working people potentially in my constituency who are in trade unions. And despite this historic link with their union which I passionately defend, I don’t actually have a day-to-day real relationship with them. If we are to get back in touch in politics, I want to spend more time with people who spend time in the real economy, not less. This really is what this is about. It’s not about turning up to Labour party conference and saying ‘I speak for 1.2 million members’. Really? Are you sure about that? How many members have you spoken to?”

A close friend of Ed Balls, Dugher voted for the Shadow Chancellor in the leadership race. If he had his vote again, would he switch and vote for Ed Miliband instead?

“Of course – he won!” he laughs. “On the very day that I nominated and came out publicly for Ed Balls I said to Ed Miliband that I would put him Number 2, and the arithmetic of that had a certain weight to it. I remember speaking to him a few days after the election. He said ‘how do you think it will go?’ I said ‘I think David is doing well at the moment because he’s perceived to be the change, but in a slightly longer leadership race that’s going to get tested, to see how much he and some of his supporters really just want to turn the clock back and say ‘let’s just run the 1997 election campaign’ and all of that. Equally with Ed Balls, despite all his best efforts, he could never shake off his closeness to Gordon. And I felt there was an opportunity really for Ed to come through the middle, which is exactly what he did.

“The Labour party membership are not idiots. They don’t look at what’s best for 2010, they’re thinking about who will have the best forward offer for 2015 and who will most be the change. And I think people rightly came to the correct judgement that Ed was the best person to do that. That is really our strategy. They’ve got to own the failure. We’ve got to show that we are the change, a party that learned hard lessons from our defeat in 2010 and that we get it.”

Like his colleagues, Dugher isn’t keen to talk about the pending reshuffle, though, like Jon Cruddas, his name has been linked to the key General Election Co-Ordinator post vacated by Tom Watson. “I’m happy doing the job I’m doing. It’s a bit like football. Imagine a Nottingham Forest player saying ‘you know what, I could combine my defensive qualities with a bit more outfield, why don’t you play me in a different role?’ I think if I had that sort of conversation with Ed Miliband, I might get a similar response that Brian Clough, one of my great heroes, would give: ‘The Gaffer picks the team’.”

Speaking of which, how does he explain away his decision to support Nottingham Forest rather than his local team, Doncaster Rovers, when he grew up? “I really became a big Forest fan when I moved to Nottingham in 1993 and if you look at the 20 years since I became a Forest fan it’s probably the worst period in that club’s entire history,” he smiles. “I’ve stood in the snow away at Milton Keynes in January on a Wednesday night, in a stand with no roof on it, watching Gary Megson ruin a once proud football team. I’ve given them nothing but terrible luck.”

But Dugher has a confidence that his teams’ luck is about to change: both for the Labour party and Nottingham Forest. “Football is a bit like politics. What’s our biggest single emotion? Hope. If there was no hope what would be the point?”

DUGHER ON…THE CURRENT GENERATION OF UNION LEADERS

“It’s about their approach to politics. It’s also about their approach to running unions. Ken Jackson had lots of faults and flaws, but when he left his position he left the union financially in very good strength. His immediate successor and successors frankly have squandered the resources, as is always the case.”

DUGHER ON…OSBORNE

“When I saw the George Osborne Telegraph splash ‘Job Done’ on the economy, it

reminded me of when George Bush declared in Iraq that the war was won, ‘Mission

Accomplished’”

DUGHER ON…NOT BEING IN NO.10

“Most mornings I don’t listen to John Humphrys in the mornings any more. My

quality of life has increased exponentially, so now I’ll listen to [jazz singer] Caro

Emerald on the way into work.”

DUGHER ON…RELAXING

“I play a lot of music and I listen to a lot of music as well. I watch 2 or 3 new films a week. I listen to at least an hour and a half of music a day….the new Justin Curry album…McCartney’s got a new single, the Johnny Marr album, Caro Emerald.. I permanently walk round with my iPod. If I forget my iPod, for me, that’s worse than forgetting my phone.”

DUGHER ON…TWITTER

“Twitter is for obsessives. That’s one of the reasons I like it. If you are obsessed about cricket as I am, it’s fantastic.  It has great links to good journalism or football..if you’re obsessed about politics or news. But we’ve got to step back and realise it isn’t quite the real world.”

DUGHER ON…HIS ROLE

“I’m housed in our Cabinet Office team but I run amok across the piece really.”

DUGHER ON…THE PRESS

“The lesson of recent elections is you can’t have an approach to politics which is all about tomorrow’s headlines. The commentariat will say things like ‘it’s been a bad few days, or a bad summer. That’s basically bollocks. You can’t have a politics where you are just bounced around by headline writers, or leader writers. People talk about politicians being out of touch and that’s quite right, but when was the last time David Aaronovitch did a surgery in a working class community? It’s worth considering.”

DUGHER ON…DAMIAN MCBRIDE’S BOOK

“I don’t know. I’ve not spoken to Damian for a very long time. I’m told by journalists who’ve signed the official secrets act and are reading it at the moment that I get a few mentions. But I’m sure it will all be entirely a) flattering and b) accurate.”