Lansons Conversations

Tom Baldwin: The man behind Miliband who’s happy to remain in the shadows.

As the Labour party begins to move on from the failure of last week’s local and devolved elections and begins to sharpen its attack lines in preparation for the one year anniversary of the Coalition Government, one man in particular will continue to wield particular influence behind the scenes. Although the party failed to capitalise on the UK-wide Lib Dems capitulation on Thursday, one aspect of Miliband’s Labour operation ove­r the past 12 months is slowly gaining recognition for its slickness and efficiency.  ­ The move to appoint Tom Baldwin as the party’s chief of media and strategy in early 2011 is starting to prove one of Miliband’s shrewdest so far, and Baldwin’s approach is slowly starting to gain traction as Miliband attempts to set out his vision for a post-New Labour party. While much of the commentariat’s focus over the next week will be where the Coalition has succeeded or failed, Labour and Miliband’s gradual establishment as something resembling an effective opposition can be dated back to Baldwin’s entrance. While Miliband’s first few months were spent in a belated bid to try to spell out to Joe public who he actually was, and more importantly, what he stands for, Baldwin’s scripted attacks are now beginning to land tangible blows to the Coalition. Although his remit is very much strategic and behind-the-scenes (Bob Roberts, the ex-Daily Mirror hack who was hired alongside Baldwin is responsible for day-to-day media relations and political ‘fire fighting’), the sharp lines generated by Baldwin, such as snappy sound-bites connecting the VAT rise to people’s everyday lives, are starting to position Labour as a realistic defender of a disaffected public. Baldwin’s approach, apparently mirroring the strategy adopted by Gordon Brown at the height of his power as Chancellor, is for Miliband to do less media, but ‘do it better’. Although inside the Westminster bubble Baldwin is a notorious character with a controversial reputation, he is relatively unfamiliar to the public in terms of the current crop of political heavyweights and their spin doctors. Baldwin quickly rose up the ranks at local newspapers, and while covering the Hartlepool beat apparently caught the eye of the then-MP Peter Mandelson as a journalist with a promising future. After moving to the Sunday Telegraph, Baldwin became political editor at The Times, and was responsible for the Formula One funding scoop that was the first scandal to rock New Labour in 1997. While it was always widely accepted that Baldwin was left-leaning, after working the lobby in the years when Alastair Campbell’s spinning machine was at its most powerful, over time Baldwin became seen as something of a New Labour mouthpiece, and an acolyte to Campbell himself. In 2003 Baldwin was one of the first journalists to name David Kelly as the source for MoD claims that the government had ‘sexed-up’ an intelligence dossier, and eventually had to appear before the Hutton Inquiry into Kelly’s death. The Daily Mail subsequently claimed that Baldwin’s relationship with Campbell at the time was so close that Campbell was given a good-luck hug by his good friend before testifying himself. It is more pertinent in the current landscape however to draw comparisons not with Campbell, but with the Conservative’s recent media management problems. As opposed to Andy Coulson, who was a high-profile operator credited with making David Cameron’s policies relevant to the archetypal Sun reader, and new  head of communications at No. 10 Craig Oliver, Baldwin is anything but a polished PR man. Despite his famously dishevelled appearance and unorganised style, and having never denied allegations from Lord Ashcroft that he was previously a cocaine addict, Baldwin’s unorthodox and under-the-radar approach may be valuable as he continues to architect a resurgent Miliband in the second year of the Coalition’s term.   Expect Baldwin to continue to exploit on his ability thus far to capture the zeitgeist of where Coalition cuts are hurting most, and position Miliband more forcefully as the credible alternative. Already noticeable is Baldwin’s impression upon the party that to be plausible in opposition it has to support certain reforms and cuts rather than simply opposing and protesting every government decision. Baldwin’s political antenna is clearly tuned in enough to recognise that quick wins and point scoring over every policy will not convince the electorate, and his more considered approach to opposition is starting to bear fruit as a more constant thorn in the side of the Coalition. Alistair Campbell Mk II he may or may not be, but if Ed Miliband and Labour manage to establish themselves as champions of an electorate increasingly feeling the squeeze of government cuts, expect Baldwin to be quietly pulling the strings.