The challenges of leadership

Successful candidates for Labour leader and deputy have huge tasks to overcome. Rebuilding electoral support and overcoming party divisions are two central challenges among others set out by Duncan Bowie as a guide to selection.

The incoming leadership of the Labour Party will not have an easy task. They have first to overcome the divisive factionalism in the Party by demonstrating an ability to work with both MPs and members from differing political traditions and with different visions of the Party’s future. They will need respect of not just party members but of potential (and former) Labour supporters and the electorate as a whole. They will need to demonstrate that they are honest, competent and fit, not just to lead the Labour Party but to lead the country. They will need to retain the core policies developed over the last few years, but be capable of presenting them in a manner which demonstrates that they are a good thing for the majority of the country – that the policies are not extreme or revolutionary, but common sense policies.

There is widespread support for many of Labour’s policies – more progressive tax, better funding of the NHS, bringing the railways and energy companies back into public control and out of the hands of the profiteers, to name just a few. We need to know how to persuade the electorate as a whole what practical socialism means, rather than endlessly blame our failures on ‘the media’. The mainstream media will always be partisan. It is something we have to live with. In the 1830’s, the Chartists did not moan about the media, nor did the socialists of the 1880’s and 1890’s – they developed their own forms of advocacy and media.

The fact that we are electing a leader and deputy leader at the same time presents us with an opportunity to have a balanced leadership team. This means not voting in a single slate. What is important is that we have one leader from the party left and one from the centre or moderate left – not two individuals who will fight each other as in the case of Corbyn and Watson, but two individuals who respect each other and are prepared to work together despite political differences. It is also important, in the aftermath of Brexit, that we bridge both the Leave/Remain divide and the North/South divide. Selecting two Leavers or two Remainers would be a mistake, as would be selecting either two Southerners or two candidates from the North or Midlands. It would be good to have a gender balance in the leadership team, but this does not mean the new leader has to be a woman just because we have not had a woman leader before. We should remember that both Margaret Beckett and Harriet Harman were deputy leader and briefly acting leader, but that neither chose to stand for the leadership. Also, we do need a racially diverse leadership team in the shadow cabinet, but this does not mean that we choose the new leadership primarily on the grounds of ethnicity. Political views and behaviour are much more important. It is also important that neither leader or deputy leader have a backstory which can lead to them being discredited – no thoughtless tweets, no unsavoury associations.

We need to recognise that people’s views can change over time and that most of us have done something fairly stupid in the past, but however principled Jeremy Corbyn may have been, his past came back to haunt him and to haunt the Labour Party as a whole. We cannot risk this again. We need a leadership team who are respected, if not actually loved by the electorate as a whole, not just by one or other faction within the Labour Party membership.

As I have argued before, the leadership is important but the PLP and the party as a whole is more than the party leader. We were no more Corbyn’s party than the Liberal Democrats were Jo Swinson’s party. We have to learn the lesson of the consequences of identifying the Party and its policies with a single leader. We cannot be divided into Corbynistas and Blairites. Each of us has our own interpretation of socialism. The important thing is to avoid treating anyone with a different interpretation as an enemy or traitor.

We also need leaders who do not surround themselves with their own clique of friends, relatives and factional colleagues from their past, but who instead collaborate with and engage a much wider group. We need leaders who allow and even support their cabinet/shadow cabinet to get on with their jobs and who make use of the expertise and energy not just within the PLP but within the party membership as a whole. Policy-making needs to be much more transparent and not just left to the manifesto in the last few weeks of an election campaign, when it is too late to get our message over to the electorate.

This is going to be a long-term struggle. Winning back the 60 parliamentary seats we lost, and winning a few more as well, is not going to be easy. It is not just ‘one more heave’. We need to focus on persuading people that there are good reasons for voting Labour and this goes beyond the personality of the individual leader or leaders. We also need a leadership team who will serve us through at least the next decade, and in electing a deputy leader, we need to choose someone who could take over as leader in the longer term and could also be seen as a potential Prime Minister. The choices we make now will have long-term consequences.

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