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.

, ,

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.

, ,