Labour leadership: Closing statements from the candidates

As we finally stagger towards the announcement of the result, the four candidates for Labour leader have been making their final speeches. Here’s what they said:

Liz Kendall: “People have asked me if I’d change anything about my leadership campaign, and I can only think of one thing I’d have done differently. Back in May, I should have decided to spend the next few months catching up on a few box sets and let Tristram Hunt destroy his career instead.”

Andy Burnham: “Throughout this campaign, I have been listening to you, and giving you what you wanted, no matter how many crazed u-turns that required me to pull. As leader, I will continue to give you what you want, and that is why I, Jerendy Corbynham, will be the next Labour leader.”

Yvette Cooper: “Labour needs someone to be a campaigner, and throughout the three long weeks of this election, I have been campaigning as hard as I can. You can be assured that I will campaign just as hard in the 2020 election as I have for the party leadership.”

Jeremy Corbyn: “That was weird. I dreamt I was running for Labour leader, people were publishing books of poems about me and Buzzfeed were running articles illustrating people’s dreams about me. Oh, I see. Right. Shit.”

I’ve mentioned before that election junkies looking for their next fix should be looking to Canada, who’ll be electing a new government on October 19th. It’s a country where elections often deliver unexpected outcomes, with really big poll movements often happening during the campaign and this year’s campaign seems likely to keep up that trend. There are three parties that the polls can barely separate, each also rising and falling in different parts of the company so first past the post voting looks like it could deliver some very confusing and unpredictable results when the votes are cast. Remember that this is the country where a majority ruling party lost all but two of its seats at a national election, where the Opposition lost over half its seats last time, and at the same time a party that had never won more than a handful of seats in Quebec swept the province to the extent that a candidate who never even visited her constituency during the election was elected.

There’s still over a month until the voting takes place but the campaign’s in full swing already and this piece from Maclean’s gives an idea of the mood around Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s campaign. It all feels very pessimistic – though I recall us debating whether David Cameron really wanted to win in April and if he was just going through the motions – but one section from it caught my attention and got me thinking:

As early as 2009, Conservatives close to Harper were describing his political aims in terms that lasted beyond Harper’s own career as leader of the Conservative party. Earlier Conservative leaders—John Diefenbaker, Brian Mulroney—had left their parties so worn out that their opponents rolled over them, leaving them without influence for many years. If the Liberals have been Canada’s natural governing party, in this analysis, it’s because Conservatives have failed to build something that could last and compete long after the first flush of a new leader’s novelty.

If you look at the Canadian politics since the war, it does appear to be long periods of Liberal dominance punctuated by occasional Conservative success, making it the mirror of Britain where we’ve had long periods of Conservative dominance, punctuated by the occasional Labour government. The diagnosis of the cause is also similar: both Labour and the Canadian Conservatives have been unable to renew themselves in government in the same way Britain’s Conservatives and the Liberals have been able to. The two successful parties were able to hand over the Premiership from one election-winning leader to another, while the two unsuccessful ones were able to get into power with the right leader at the right time but couldn’t stretch that success into another generation.

I’m reminded of one of the criticisms levelled at Tony Blair during this Labour leadership election: that he didn’t pay attention to what would happen to the Labour Party after he left, leaving it short of credible future leadership candidates to carry on his ethos. Meanwhile, David Cameron appears to have made the focus of his second term in office ensuring that George Osborne succeeds him as seamlessly as possible, and if he should stumble, there are plenty of others willing to continue the Cameron project.

Is the secret to success for parties having that focus on the real long term? Not just planning how to win the next election, but already thinking about who’s going to win the ones after that? It seems that a good leader can make a party successful and electable in the short term, but something else in the party’s institutions and operations is needed if it’s going to win after they’ve moved on or the electorate has tired of them.


Every day, we think Labour’s leadership election can’t get sillier, then every day they find some way to prove us wrong. With two weeks still to go, I’m expecting a denouement in which Jeremy Corbyn meets a mad scientist, is blown up to be 100 metres tall and the only way to save the country from Corbynzilla is for Copper, Burnham and Kendall to fight him in a similarly-sized hastily built robotic Clement Attlee.

But for now, we’ll just deal with the decision that the party will be vetting new supporters against canvassing data they have on them in order to discover whether they’re Labour voters or not. (If they’re too young to have canvass data, then their school friends will be asked to assess and inform on their real beliefs

As someone who’s done plenty of canvassing in my time, the idea that canvass data can be used to accurately judge how people have voted seems incredibly optimistic. Canvassing – for those of you not in the know, it’s what politicos call knocking on your door and asking how you’ll vote – and canvassing returns are incredibly subjective experiences, and while the data you get from them as a whole can be useful, it’s essentially unreliable. Consider that the opinion polling industry has spent decades trying to work out ways in which to obtain useful and objective data from subjective interaction between people. There’s a huge amount of literature in psychology, political science and other fields looking at just how subconsciously biased our interactions with other people are, and this has influenced the way poll companies and other research organisations conduct their operations, especially how they ask questions and gather responses.

Political parties don’t do that. Most canvass data comes from a volunteer – who might not have been a party member for long themselves – given a clipboard (or if we’re being really modern, a tablet with relevant data loaded on to it) and rosette, pointed at a street and told to find out how people are voting there. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the results that come back from this exercise are mixed. Send someone in an optimistic mood to do it, and anyone who didn’t threaten them with violence is marked down as being at least probable to vote for us, send someone feeling down and pessimistic and even the people with your posters in the window are marked as unsure. Catch someone at the right time and they’ll tell you how they’ve always voted for you, are happy to put up a poster and yes, now you mention it, they do want to join the party; come five minutes later when they’ve just had a bad phone call, the baby’s crying and EastEnders is about to start, and you’re lucky if they’ll even come to the door to tell you to go away.

Add to all that the fact that canvassing as it’s carried out nowadays is a legacy of a different kind of politics and society. When most people had strong party loyalties – and in most parts of the country there were only two parties effectively competing – it was quite easy to find out who would be supporting you and thus needing to be reminded to vote on polling day, and who you should avoid. Now, when there are multiple parties just about everywhere and people’s allegiances are a lot more fluid, things are very different. What someone told you about their political opinions in April could well be different in June. Canvassing now is about small pieces of reliable data in amongst a sea of false negatives and false positives: averaging it out might give you reliable figures for an area, but not about the opinions of an individual.

Labour’s move to their new system was supposed to be about acknowledging the new realities of politics, that political identities are much more fluid and people would be more willing to be be supporters rather than members or activists. Using canvassing data is an odd way to use the assumptions of old politics to stymie the aspirations of the new.


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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