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A political hero

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By Emma | 5 comments

Look at the photo above. You probably recognise the woman on the left. She’s the woman always on the left. That’s Diane Abbott being elected for the first time in 1987.

But this blog isn’t about Diane Abbott. It’s about the bloke standing next to her. Her agent that time around. The one whose face you can’t really see because he’s concentrating on the task at hand. Given they’re actually at the count, there’s reason to doubt he’s trying to convince Diane to do one last knock up. But no one who’s met John Burnell would put it past him.

When Labour people gather together, often the topic will come around to political heroes. Bevan and Blair, King and Kinnock, Benn and Obama. These are great politicaians, great orators, great leaders. But the reason we know of any of them is becuase of people like John Burnell. The people who don’t reap the fame and the glory, but get the sore feet and the cross word when they send you out to do another bloody leaflet round.

John didn’t start his life as a Labour man. in fact he’s the son of a Tory Councillor and Street Captain (I don’t know what a street captain is, other than something they had in the Tories in the 60s and 70s, but by all accounts my Nana was a formidable one). Comfortably suburban and newly middle class, the Burnells sent their son to a private school he hated and then packed him off to university expecting great things. From the rows that followed, I’m not sure that becoming a Labour Party organiser was what they had in mind!

John worked for the Party for a while then went into Personnel, eventually setting up his own one man band consultancy. Every summer, John’s incoming profits – healthy the rest of the year round – would dip alarmingly. He simply couldn’t work out what was causing it. Until I realised he lived in an area with elections practically every spring. John had – of course – been spending too much time leafleting and canvassing for Labour and not enough chasing business for himself.

The highest office John has ever held was as a Hackney Councillor. He also edited a book once. The Institute for Workers Control sounds quite Trot-like. I think John probably was of the Left back in the day. But one thing he has never and would never be is a Trot. His highest value is loyalty to the Party. He knows and understands that all other values spring from there. Without the party we’re a bunch of lost individuals shouting into the void at the unfairness of it all. Together, we are  a collective that can, has and will change the world. John Burnell is why I wear the name triballist with pride.

John retired last month. In real terms of course, this simply means that he’ll have more time than ever to dedicate to the Labour Party. He must be thrilled that Stevenage is an Island seat, selecting early. It will keep him busy for the next few years. Watch out East Herts!

John can be a tough nut to crack sometimes. He doesn’t suffer fools – or people not willing to go on one last GOTV mission at 9.45 – gladly. He gives his all and he expects others to do the same. But if he’s ever campaigned with you or for you, my God are you glad when he’s on your side.

John’s given 45 years to the Labour Party. God willing he’ll be giving at least 20 more. The Labour Party owes John and the Johns of this world a massive debt of gratitude, and I will be looking into ways they can do that. A simple thank you would mean the world to this man who has dedicated his life to his Party.

John Burnell is my Dad and he’s my all time political hero.


So next week ballots will drop onto doorsteps and voting for the Labour leadership will begin. In this post I will outline my rankings of the candidates. I don’t agree with any candidate on all issues – for example I disagree with Ed Miliband on Nuclear power and with Andy Burnham on Crime. But I’m not looking for an idol, but a leader with whom I and the thousands of members like me can work to reshape the Labour Party into the future.

1. Ed Miliband

I have been quite clear that I am supporting Ed Miliband for leader since he announced. I have worked hard on his campaign and been massively inspired by the people I have met (all of whom make me feel ancient). I believethis campaign – though scrappy at times and a little rough around the edges – has been well timed. The slowly increasing tempo of the Ed M drumbeat has been well managed and his layeringof the message of Leftist economics combined with liberal social policies on civil rights and justice has combined with some shrewd analytics not just of where our party is but where our future vote could come from. I’m a lefty at heart, but a political operative in my soul. If I thought Ed’s leadership and direction would be in any way damaging to our ability to win, I would have qualms. They aren’t and I don’t.

2. Andy Burnham

I’ve been to-ing and fro-ing about my second choice. At one point it was David Miliband, but now I find myself choosing between Andy Burnham and Ed Balls, and have opted for Andy. Of course, given the electoral maths, I hope my second choice doesn’t count for much. But it will hopefully send a message.

I disagree with Andy’s stance on crime and justice issues. I think he both wrong in policy terms – we have been too casual with individual liberties – and also wrong politically (those who agree we have been too casual may be looking for an alternative to the coalition, we need to give them a reason to think it’s us). But I have been impressed with the way he has run his campaign as a non-London insurgency. I think basing his campaign out of Manchester was a good decision and his growingsupport has highlighted the need to refocus in winning seats in the North and Midlands and not solely in the South.

He finally won my second preference vote with his support for a Land Value Tax which is an extremely form of taxation.

3. Ed Balls

This is a toughie. I think Ed Balls has had a brilliant campaign – full of blood and fire. But I also don’t think he is the man to unite the Labour Party. He’s been too much at the heart of our divisions for too long. Having said this, I want to see him in a prominent position – perhaps the Chancellorship he has long dreamed of – as he has proved that there is none like him for attacking the coalition, and we need that quality as the cuts get nastier and nastier. We need a leader to show a positive alternative, but we also need a high profile fighter to show the people we are fighting for them.

4. David Miliband

It actually really saddens me that I am puttingDavid so low. I have nothing but respect for his abilities and his intellect. But a leader doesn’t lead alone, and David has very deliberately surrounded himself (apart from Jon Cruddas, and I never really drank the Cruddas KoolAid) with people who completely deny the need to move far, far beyond New Labour. If you can tell a man by the company he keeps, I don’t want to have a leader backed by the New Labour establishment. I want a fresh start. Still, despite all this I wanted to find reasons to back him (and of course whoever wins I will support them as leader while pushingthem to be the best Leader they can be). But his campaign has been poor and it’s tone elitist and chastising. David Miliband is a great thinking and a good politician. He deserved better than he got, but with all the advantages his campaign has, he should have made sure he got it.

5. Diane Abbott

Diane started strongly, fizzled out and now seems to have disappeared. Sadly this seems to be because she doesn’t have much to offer besides a critique of the past. Fine – I agree to a certain extent. But I need a vision, a platform and an offer. I’ve had none of that from Diane, and she has sadly made the mistake of taking her candidacy even less seriously than her critics did.


Dear Andy, David, Diane, Ed & Ed,

As you set of on your hols I thought I’d give you a few thoughts to chew over. I know you’re getting advice from every quarter at the moment, but with all of you expressing a greater commitment to listening and to party democracy, I thought I’d add my twopence worth.

I’m a fairly ordinary Labour Party member. I am probably a bit more active in national bodies than I am locally, but I am not important or influential in the party (hands up who stopped reading at that point), I have no money to donate (still with me?) and no strong faction to bring to the table (hello?!). But I understand the Labour Party and its members. I was born into the Labour Party and my parents – especially my Dad – are the kind of grassroots members who keep us going and whose intervention and shoe leather stopped us falling all the way off our cliff in May.

I live and breath Labour politics. I discuss endlessly with my colleagues,  friends and family how Labour could win again, could be better and could win/win back the support we don’t currently have. From these conversations, and my own observations I offer you the following pieces of advice:

1. Be a leader, not a fighter.

You will have plenty of colleagues who will be able to take the fight to the Tory coalition. You will need to be a figurehead who is see as above that. Yes, attack at PMQs will be important, as will rebuttal. But wherever possible, you must delegate this, and use your platform to inform and inspire. The more you can be seen as a real embodiment of a positive Labour message, the better.

2. Give up some of your power

If you want to have the ultimate authority of becoming Prime Minister, what you really need is a strong team behind you. Not just the bright young Oxbridge Grads that scoot around after you as you go from husting to husting, but the army of Labour members, who may understand they are the foot soldiers, but still want to play a vital role in policy making and in steering the direction of the party. Let them.

Sure, we may end up with a few policies you think will harm us in the Daily Mail, but then we are never, ever going to win over the Daily Mail. We will definitely end up with a considerably more energised and committed party willing to fight and fight hard for a victory they really believe in.

3. Use the resources the Party has ignored for too long.

One way of doing this is to be more sensible about how the Labour Party utilises the resources it has. One great example of this is the Socialist Societies. These are single issue groups full of people who really, really know and understand both their policy areas and the way these impact on the core Labour values of fairness and justice. As the party currently lacks money for research, this vacuum could be filled by these groups, providing not only a wealth of expertise, but also a great way of offering to members a way of getting engaged in the issues they really care about.

4. Ensure CLPs are properly engaging in their communities

I have been banging on for years about the value of changing the CLP meeting structure and getting people out on the streets, cleaning up graffiti and litter or painting dilapidated play spaces or eyesores. I suspect you as leader could be far more influential in changing our meeting culture to that of activism as well as policy engagement.

5. Chill out!

The coalition may well be here to last for 5 years. Relax and stop obsessing over the polls. Be Labour in the face of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express while in opposition, and you will be able to govern with a strong agenda and mandate. Also lead by example with your work life balance. Get a hobby, take holidays and enjoy your families. You need to be a person as well as a politician.

6. But don’t be someone you are not.

When I say get a hobby, don’t – for Gods sake – focus group it. Do something that interests you, not what a clever pollster tells you the public want you to do. If you actually have terrible taste in music, that’s actually OK, no one will vote for you on the strength of your music taste (though I am impressed with your love of the Wedding Present Andy!).

7. Read something you disagree with every day.

It will raise your blood pressure, but will also keep your skills of argument sharp. I make a point of reading Conservative Home and Lib Dem Voice regularly. Knowing what the other side are talking and arguing about can only make you stronger.

8. The “other side” is never your own party except Frank Field.

The Labour Party is a broad church. You won’t agree with everything and they won’t all agree with you. But that’s not the point of leadership. Never attack your own members. But you should cut Frank Field loose. He’s an embarrassment and we need better party discipline from our MPs.

9. Cut out the dead wood.

This will be really difficult, as it is natural to turn to our predecessors for advice, but the following people need to be nowhere near the Labour Party for the sake of cleansing our brand for the foreseeable and indeed distant future: Peter Mandelson, Alistair Campbell, James Purnell, Charles Clarke. The following should be left on the back benches: Jack Straw, Alan Johnson, Hazel Blears, Caroline Flint. I’m sure they are interesting and have much to offer, but the hard political truth, and what they would be advising you were it 20 years ago, is that talent is no match for the stigma they bring.

10. Don’t forget each other’s good ideas

There have been plenty in this leadership campaign. Remember to be both magnanimous and sharing in victory, then coldly pinch all that was the best about your combined talents!

I hope this advice is helpful to you. I promise here and now I will continue to work and fight hard whoever wins, and I hope you all do the same.

Yours in Socialism,



On Monday, I attended the Fabian Society hustings for the Labour Leadership, and was pleased to ask the following question: “Are you a Socialist, and if so, what does that mean to you?”.

All the candidates answered in first part in the affirmative, with David Miliband probably demurring the most, Ed Balls being the most fighting, Andy Burnham unexpectedly quoting Billy Bragg, Diane Abbot being equally passionate as Balls. Ed Miliband was less passionate, but gave the most coherent argument about how his Socialism would work in policy terms.

One of the reasons for the question was following a long beer-fuelled debate with some good friends. Essentially the debate boiled down to them arguing that they wanted to hear from the candidates where their ideas and passions came from, and I said that while that was essential, it was also important to know what that would mean in terms of their take on policies for the future.

Inevitably and quite rightly, when you ask this question, you ask yourself what your own answer would be. That presumably is the ideal answer that you would want to hear.

So I will attempt to give an understanding of what I mean when I declare myself a Socialist, and how this would inform my policies were I to come to a position of leadership (very unlikely, but bear with me here!).

I believe Socialism is about society using the tools at it’s disposal, at all levels, to ensure that the fruits of capitalism are shared by the many not the few. Sometimes that means nationalisation - the railways would be a good example here, sometimes it means fighting privatization – of Royal Mail which was a bad idea under Labour and remains one under “Saint” Vince. Sometimes it means regulation – tougher restrictions on pay and conditions to ensure a fairer society. Sometimes it means local solutions – like freeing councils to build more social housing.

The Socialist solutions are many and varied, but they all stem from the same basic set of principle, that between the five of them the candidates outlined on Monday and which distilled outline my beliefs.

I am Socialist of the Heart like both Billy Bragg and Andy Burnham, and recognise the innate equality we are born with and the inherent inequalities in the system that choke our ability to remain equal. Like Diane I draw my line in the sand and stand on the side of the stand of the voiceless and the powerless. Like Ed Balls I am passionate about opposing measures brought in by right wing Governments to remove the power of the state to stand at people’s backs using the rhetoric of getting out of their way. Like David Miliband I recognise that the responsibilities of Socialism don’t stop at our borders, and that we should be judged on how we represent the voiceless and powerless everywhere. Finally like Ed Miliband, I believe Socialism is about taking action, not just to oppose, but to regulate, organise and bend the capitalist system to the will of the people. To ensure the benefits Capitalism can bring are felt by the many not the few.

I have a declared favourite in this campaign, but I was pleased to find so much talent and agreement about being braver in our understanding and practice of Socialism. I will also work with other members to take full advantage of the newly awakened thirst for internal Labour Party democracy to keep the pressure on whoever wins to keep the fires of Socialism lit, and keep holding the coalitions feet to them!


I have known Diane Abbott for a very, very long time. She wouldn’t be my chosen standard bearer of the left of the party. She can be a divisive figure, not simply politically; in her manner and conduct she seems to relish making enemies. In this way she is an epitome of the old struggles of the left in the ’80s when she was first elected.

But the left wing of our left-of-centre party deserve to be represented, and if Diane looks like the most likely candidate, then Diane it should be. There’s a lot of talk of trust in the Labour Party at the moment. Talk about losing the trust of our voters and talk about trusting our activists. But at the moment, whether we get to have a debate with that voice represented is purely up to our MPs. I hope enough of them have the courage to ensure that Diane goes through to the next round, and that that tradition of the left is represented in our debates.

I won’t be voting for Diane. I’m one of the many people she has had confrontation with. I also don’t think she can win, the AV system works against her as she is unlikely to garner many 2nd preference votes. But her presence in the debates should remind us of how plural a party we are, what a spectrum of views we represent and how important that coalition is.



© All content is the copyright of Emma Burnell but I give permission for its use as long as it is properly credited, unless otherwise stated.
The views stated are those of Emma Burnell and the other occassional contributors.
They are not the views of any employer or organisation with which these individuals are involved.
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