Is choosing a Prime Ministerial candidate five years before an election a good idea?

British politics has a lot of odd traditions and one of the more recent of them was begun by Michael Foot. He was the first major party leader to resign immediately after an election defeat, something that hadn’t happened before but is now de rigeur for defeated party leaders.

However, while there are some good reasons for a defeated leader to move on to other things ASAP, this creates a whole new set of problems for the party, especially given how our political system is now. This is shown most clearly by what’s happening with Labour right now where the party is attempting to find a new leader while also trying to work out what went wrong in 2015. The problem this brings is that the candidate who might have the best assessment of the situation now is by no means guaranteed to be the best choice to be leading the party into the next election but the way things are set up, that’s what they’ll get. (Ian Dunt makes a similar argument today)

The problem with the British system is that party leaders – particularly in opposition – are expected to combine multiple roles. On one hand, they’re the person responsible for directing and co-ordinating the work of the party in between elections, while on the other (particularly as a general election draws near) they’re the party’s lead candidate and potential Prime Minister. The assumption we make is that somehow, one person will be the best fit for both of those roles, despite the evidence showing that it’s much more likely to find someone who’d excel in one position and not the other. For instance, William Hague did some very important work in sorting out the organisation of the Conservative Party while he was leader but was absolutely terrible as a lead campaigner, while Charles Kennedy was a brilliant campaigner for the Liberal Democrats but none of the tributes to him from the last week have been about his organisational abilities.

The conflation of the two roles is a problem for all parties, but particularly pronounced for major parties whose leaders are expected to be Prime Ministerial candidates. This is a situation that doesn’t happen in other countries: German parties choose their ‘Chancellor candidate’ a few months before the election is scheduled and even in the ridiculously lengthy US election process, there’s a two-year gap before candidates for the next Presidential election declare themselves. Labour, by contrast, are hoping that the questions ‘who can best rebuild the party?’ and ‘who’ll be the best Labour candidate for Prime Minister in 2020?’ have the same answer, even though we have very little idea of what the political situation will be like in 2020. We don’t even know who’ll be leading the Tories then, and Labour will be handing them the advantage of being able to choose the best leader to combat their choice, rather than the other way round.

I’ve written before about interim leaders and how Labour need a John Smith right now rather than thinking they can magically summon a new Blair, but I think there’s a more fundamental question of ‘what is a party leader for?’ that’s not being addressed in the Labour contest. Liz Kendall’s suggestion of a 2018 ‘break clause’ for a new leader is perhaps the most sensible idea put forward in a contest that’s been particularly short of them and would give Labour the chance to properly divide up the roles of leader: choose someone now to get things on track, then decide in 2018 if they or someone else are the best person to put forward as Prime Minister.

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.

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I’m sure there are lots of blog posts about the Labour leadership election today, so I’m not going to add to the crystal ball-gazing about just what Ed Miliband might or might not do now he’s leader of the opposition, or even about the structure of the result, but there is one curious part of Labour’s electoral system that I wanted to comment on.

There’s a huge lack of secrecy involved in the process and declaration, with some dubious implications for how the party is run. In the results section of the Labour website, there are separate pages for the three different parts of Labour’s electoral college – MPs and MEPs, members and unions & affiliates.

While I can see that there are valid reasons for the unions and affiliates section to be counted by organisation – to prevent ballot stuffing by an organisation, for instance – I’m not sure what the party’s reasons for declaring the membership results by constituency party are. It may be useful to know which areas of the country might have the most peeved Miliband (D) and celebratory Miliband (E) supporters this morning, but it seems to me that if a vengeful leader wanted to know where to find their enemies (not that I think Ed Miliband is like that), breaking down the result to that level makes it quite easy. Of course, this may be a hangover from the time when the Labour leadershp wanted to know where the Militant supporters were – and the Militant supporters liked it because it helped them know just where their entryism had been most successful, I assume.

However, that’s probably explainable by me being used to an entirely different way of structuring a party and reporting results, but I’d be interested to hear what the justification is for every MP and MEP’s individual vote being made public. It seems really odd to me – given that the Labour Party likes to see its roots in the Chartist movement – that they’re not trusted to have a secret ballot. While it is amusing to see those who didn’t want to use any preferences in their ballot, publishing their ballots like this surely causes quite significant pressure on individuals to vote in favour of political expediency rather than their conscience.

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