Labour leadership: a pair of what ifs

A bit too busy with the dissertation to blog much right now, but a couple of thoughts I thought I’d put out there to see if they might spark a discussion.

First, returning to a thought I had a few months ago, what if John Smith hadn’t stood for Labour leader in 1992? (Probably for health reasons, but the whys of it aren’t important) Would the line up of candidates look that impressive at the time? Sure, Blair was only two years away from winning the leadership but in 1992 he was relatively obscure and hadn’t come up with ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. Would a call to modernise then fall on the same stony ground as Liz Kendall’s have now? Who else would be a credible contender in the climate of 1992?

Second, would a lot of the current trouble have been avoided if Labour’s electoral system was more like the Conservatives? Rather than just increasing the number of MPs needed to get nominated, Miliband’s reforms had followed the Tories in giving MPs an extended primary where they whittled down a large number of candidates to just two to face the membership/supporters/affiliates vote? With a much lower initial bar to being nominated, but a much-higher one to reach the voters, candidates who dropped out because of insufficient support this time like Mary Creagh and Tristram Hunt could have been part of the process, while no one would have needed to lend Corbyn any nominations, but a lack of support from MPs would prevent him making it to the final stage. Would it have ended up as Burnham vs Cooper, or might something different have happened?

(I actually think the Tory leadership election process is a good one, that only has such a bad reputation because the first time it was tried, it was given a selection of poor candidates and a party that didn’t want to be united)

What Labour needs now is a Smith, not a Blair

johnsmithWith many parties in flux right now, it’s a prime time for everyone to offer them advice, especially those outside the party with little to now knowledge of it, yet are absolutely sure they know what the party ought to be doing next. So, Labour people should feel free to completely ignore this on the grounds that I likely don’t know what I’m talking about.

The Labour Party leadership election appears to be taking place under a giant Tony Blair-shaped shadow, with much of the debate seeming to float around which of the candidates is the most Blairite, post-Blairite, worthy of the mantle of Blair etc That’s entirely natural, as Blair remains the only Labour leader to have won an election in the past forty years, but I think it misses a crucial part of the rise of Tony Blair.

The narrative of how Blair ‘made Labour electable again’ often ignores that Blair was not the leader the party turned to after its defeat in 1992. It was John Smith who the party turned to, and he was elected almost by acclaim, defeating Brian Gould by 91% to 9%. It was during Smith’s time as Shadow Chancellor that Labour had started to regain ground on the Tories on economic competence, and when he became leader he chose Gordon Brown to carry on that work as his Shadow Chancellor. Because of that work, when the Tory Government saw a complete collapse of its reputation for economic competence on Black Wednesday in 1992, Labour took a lead in the opinion polls under Smith that that they wouldn’t lose for the rest of the Parliament.

846_bigIt was Smith’s death in 1994 that gave Blair the chance to stand for the party leadership – likely several years before he ever expected it – and go on to become Prime Minister, but the important fact here is that Blair inherited a Labour Party that was already well ahead in the polls and widely expected to form the next Government even if the next election was still as much as three years away. To imagine that it was merely the election of Blair that somehow made Labour electable again is to ignore everything that was done before both by Smith (and Neil Kinnock before him) to put the party into a place where it could be seen as a credible choice again.

Regardless of the qualities of the candidates for the leadership this time, just imagining that electing one of them can magically replicate the Blair effect is to ignore the situation Blair inherited when he became leader. What Labour need is a new John Smith to steady the ship and do the work that needs to be done to reorganise the party’s strategy and policy before handing it over to whoever might be the ‘new Blair’ (or the first Jarvis/Creasy/Kendall/Cooper etc). I would suggest that what Labour need to do with this leadership election is consciously decide that now is not the time to decide who’s going to lead them into the 2020 election but instead a choose someone who’ll lead the party until 2018 or 2019, and do the work to rebuild the party that’s needed while encouraging the potential next leaders to develop their skills and public profiles, but not while being the sole focus of media attention as party leader.

As we’ve seen with Ed Miliband, five years is a long time to be Leader of the Opposition, and plenty of time for the media to slowly roast you while you have very little opportunity to actually do anything. Rather than putting someone else through that pressure again, wouldn’t Labour be better off asking someone like Harriet Harman or Alan Johnson to take on the job as an explicitly interim leader? That way, they can conduct the serious process of rebuilding the party ready to hand it on to their 2020 candidate, instead of thinking that five years of the sort of media pressure that’s made Chuka Umunna quit the contest after a week would be a good thing for any new leader.