Monday, 10 May 2010

5 reasons why Labour needs a longer leadership timetable

The Labour party is likely to be in opposition very soon. Gordon Brown has done much for Labour since entering Parliament in the party's darkest days of 1983, including thirteen years as Chancellor and then Prime Minister. His strengths and weaknesses as a leader have been endlessly debated, but his final resilient contribution was to turn the billed David Cameron coronation into the election which nobody won, even if Labour must now ultimately accept that it lost.

Everybody knows that Gordon Brown will not lead the party into another General Election. So he will no doubt step down as party leader at some time in the near future.

What happens next could be crucial. We therefore remind you of Katwala's first rule of political recovery - How to get a leadership election right

No party which loses a General Election should elect its next leader within the first six months following the defeat.

The Labour party should not use its Autumn conference to crown a new leader - it should use the conference to put the spotlight on the contenders for a leadership election which takes place later in the Autumn.

This can easily be achieved, either by Brown staying on as a caretaker leader or, if he prefers to step down earlier, by his elected deputy Harriet Harman to be acting leader. (The Cabinet could choose an acting successor if Brown departed while still in office - but there is no good reason for this not to be Harman. The only possible argument is wanting a 'neutral' caretaker if Harman wants to run as a leadership candidate, but Margaret Beckett was both a candidate and acting leader in 1994). After an enormously male-dominated election campaign on all sides, the party might seem to be acting rather strangely if it usurped the role of its elected female deputy.

Not convinced? Here are five reasons.

1. If the Tories had not followed this approach in 2005, David Davis and not David Cameron would probably have just led the Conservative Party into the General Election. (Right-wing Tories who blame David Cameron for the electorate's reluctance to vote Tory no doubt think that would have been a triumph - but perhaps not).

So Gaby Hinsliff is right to advocate the Michael Howard model of leadership transition.

2. No Leader of the Opposition elected immediately after an election defeat has ever made it to Prime Minister in the post-war period.

Here's the history. Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, Blair and Cameron were all elected later in the cycle, while Kinnock, Hague and Duncan Smith were elected straight away. There is surely an element of coincidence, but there are also important reasons why this is a rational approach.

The Tories took six weeks to elect William Hague after being crushed in 1997; and began balloting MPs within a month in 2001, with IDS crowned by September. On neither occasion did the party properly debate its election defeat. A Labour party whose new MPs, tomorrow morning, have their mind primarily on which Miliband brother they may prefer to nominate as leader risks being in denial about defeat - and the need for a proper debate about the party's future.

3. Nobody in the party really knows what any of the potential contenders really think about Labour's record and future agenda - since they have almost all been entirely constrained by collective responsibility in office. Nor can a strategy for opposing the Tories be set out very clearly before we see how the next government approaches.

So "who should be the new leader" is a premature question before the party has begun a post-election debate. Whoever the candidates, it would be a healthier election if we hear a wide range of contributions

The dynamic of a contest will inevitably see much convergence in language and positioning between candidates - for example, if Ed Balls and David Miliband were both candidates, I predict that a great many of their statements about Labour's record and future would prove pretty much interchangeable, even as the newspapers tell us they offer starkly different future agendas. This risks the real debate taking place in code, in newspaper commentaries, and the proper debate taking place after the contest ends.

The real gain is not so much that somebody different may emerge, as that the party would have a healthier debate in selecting its leader. So the biggest gainer from a longer process would be whoever is elected at the end of it. Strong candidates among the current front-runners could hardly object. Whose supporters would want to advocate a quick contest on the grounds that they could anticipate doing worse if the party took more time?

4. Labour needs a very open election process which brings more people to Labour. After the Coronation of 2007, it does not need a quick fix in 2010. Setting out a timetable now would enable the party to invite supporters - and potential converts, who may include anti-Tory LibDems and others - that they can play a role in debating and deciding how Labour rebuilds. This is the ideal opportunity to use the party's new presence in social networks to bring more people into the party as members, to open up the party's culture and debates to to build campaigning strength for the next election too.

As Hopi Sen tweets:

As soon as Con-Dem alliance launches Labour should invite angry LibDems to send in their membership cards to get free Labour membership

5. Why throw away a chance to engage voters and to be in the media and political spotlight this Autumn?

Oppositions are not very interesting: the Labour party will have to adjust to this after more than a decade in power. An immediate contest will be very little noticed with most of the focus on the new government, and by the Autumn the question will be why the new leader has not yet broken through. By contrast, using the party conference as a showcase for the candidates is also the best way to simulate the new tests of leadership created by the new televised Prime Minsiterial debates.

The party should not fear an open debate and contest. Rumours of a civil war are enormously exaggerated, but risk an aversion to opening up the party's political culture in a way that is necessary to recover.

The only credible counter-argument is that there may be a very quick election this Autumn. But we shall know very soon how likely this is. In any event, most of the Labour leadership contenders have rather more experience in government than David Cameron: there would still be important advantages in as much public engagement and profile in the next Labour leadership contest as is possible in those circumstances too.


giroscoper said...

A lot of sense in this although I would point out that one of the main examples used is incorrect: Margaret Thatcher was elected Tory leader in February '75, less than 6 months after the Oct '74 election. And if Labour do go into opposition this feels more like '74-'79 than any other period (govt with no proper majority, deals with the Liberals, a period of economic crisis and spending cuts, etc.) Which is good news for Labour of course...

Why not have speeches to Labour Party Conference Sept 2009 by contenders in the same way the Tories had at the 2005 Conservative Party Conference? It was a good way of establishing that David Davis was clueless and Liam Fox was clinically insane, for example. Sorts out the wheat from the chaff.

The Green Top said...

I've just finished Tim Bale's recent book on the Tories from Thatcher to Cameron and the clearer strategic direction and sense of narrative that the party gained through delaying their leadership contest in 2005 is very clear.

That said, I can see an argument for a snap contest in these exceptional circumstances. As the Hopi Sen tweet suggests, there is going to be a large number of voters turned off by a Con-Dem alliance, and it might provide a fresh and invigorated Labour party an early chance to gain some momentum. Given that the present parliament is unliely to last the full electoral cycle, any 'jump start' that Labour can achieve could prove useful for the party later on. Whilst the economic circumstances might make it more difficult to actually implement the New Labour mantra of increased investment in public services funded by a growing economy, there's little to suggest that the terms of debate in the political centre ground have undergone a paradigm shift such as the one experienced in the post-Thatcherite era.

K said...

Interesting food for thought. However long it takes, I strongly believe labour must look to the next generation for leadership, and not chose an old Blairite baby-boomer. It is clear in the other parties that leadership has been passed to the new generation and that this has had a positive renewal effect. In fact a new generation is taking over power in our country. This happen that often in history, and it matters. Baby Boomers Blair and Brown have been running the show, with primarily Boomer-filled cabinets, and with a Boomer-dominated Parliament. The new Parliament, as well as the new cabinet, will be filled with members of Generation Jones (the new media-popular generation between the Boomers and Gen X). And the new PM is likely to be a Joneser as well: either Cameron or a GenJones Labourite like David Milliband or Ed Balls. My interest in GenJones was prompted by this very interesting article last week in the Independent about Clegg and Cameron as Jonesers:

Leo said...

Excellent post, Sunder. Maturity's what's needed now, & this post explicates those exact principles & lessons that all of us should heed. I should hope also that the candidates heed this advice too, & don't feel the need to be excessively ruthless in winning the personal support of key figures & activists early on.

Lets have a clear open & respectful debate, with different perspectives of the candidates on where we've gone wrong, who it is that we are, what the style of our politics can be, & how we can make our Party fit to meet the challenges of the coming decades.

Three early observations - while it seems that conversations I've had with fellow members, policy wonks, activists & the handful of MPs I've spoken, the overwhelming instinct is towards Ed Miliband at the minute, he should be mindful that an election process that lasts several months & allows every candidate to grow into their position will leave most Labour ears receptive to all candidates - even some of the arch-obstructionists to progress of the past like Ed Balls. If he wants to put himself forward, sure, I'll listen to what he has to say.

A second observation - Harriet Harman must, simply must stand, even if she doesn't want to. One of the great errors of the New Labour era (can we say it's definitely finished now! please?!) has been the failure of the leadership to properly nurture the next generation of leaders. That there isn't really an apparent attractive candidate with all the desirable attributes is a little concerning, and what's even more concerning is the paucity of women on the front-bench. The sheer volume of brilliant, committed women in their 20s in the Labour party today will mean that an all-male lineup could be particularly demoralising for the committed feminists within our party - male and female alike.

And a third - Jon McDonnell must stand too, & MPs, even right-wingers who care for the breadth of support for our party, even they, should do what they can to ensure he gets the 32 PPC votes & can enter the race. His presence there will bring many many people back to the party, who have been swayed by the more thoroughgoing progressive ambition of the LibDems, to the myriad factions of the Left, & that large mass of the electorate who have given up on politics altogether. His presence would provide a critical breadth to the debate, ensuring that a good range of voices are represented, as well as reminding a mostly-invisible but always-large swathe of the public that Labour still retains much of its old appeal, & that we are (as we can comfortably be a good 30 years after the Militant tendency) a truly welcoming political family.

Beyond these observations, I'd like to ask whether you're taking proposals for Freethinking papers at the Fabian Society, Sunder. I have a contribution to make in terms of a new, redemptive, historically-informed future-oriented intellectual narrative & structure (of capitalism, & of labour history) that I think could be of use to leadership candidates & interested citizens alike. (at least, I think I do! will email you...)

Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks for interesting and detailed comments.

Giroscoper - excellent piece of pedantry: I stick by the general point about the period since they lost the election at which they left office.

I think the general pattern is that parties tend to do the obvious thing, dutifully, in immediate post-election contests, where heir apparents usually win. At other times they do the less obvious thing, perhaps because they may have had longer to reflect. In 1975, the Tories made a conscious decision to change the leader: perhaps there was some serendipity (from their viewpoint) in a partly accidental choice. When John Smith died, Labour by chance got an opportunity to choose a new Labour 'skip a generation' candidate, a decision they would not have taken in 1992. That is not to say that Smith could not have won.

paul said...

sorry disagree with this

Brown has gone, Harman is simply not good enough to challenge for a substantial period of time, we have a weak government that has to be challenged from the start and attacking the Lib Dems from the start

Blair was leader after John Smith's death within 3 months and in July, that is the model we should go for now.

paul said...

I would add that te contest shoudl be taken around the country, to the grass roots and have an open debate. There is nothing to be worried about in differences if the debate is right.

anyone pledging to reform Labour, get rid of the Mandlesson's and Campbell's gets my vote

Lets say Ed Balls will not get mine