With the Labour Party leadership election underway, here are 9 questions every Labour member should be asking when they think about which candidate to vote for.
Perhaps too often, people in the party automatically support the candidate that they think best represents their faction or is just the least bad option. I think members need to start voicing what we expect, demand even, from the new leader. Labour is Europe’s biggest political party and we should be a people-led movement. No candidate should assume support from any section of the party. I think the following questions are essential in helping us think about what we need in a new party leader.
- Can they win a general election?
There’s a tendency in politics to label some people as electable and others unelectable. The self-appointed ‘Electability-Overseers’ in the press point out the apparently obvious as to who is which. In reality, this is an attempt by some (usually on the right) to circumvent any actual debate. The fact is that social democratic parties across Europe, led by centrists, have lost elections very badly — including in Britain as well — Labour got 29% of the vote in 2010.
The rest of these questions here are an attempt to figure out, what does it mean to be electable?
I can’t remember who said this, but they argued that the British people now expect their Prime Minister to look like a Tory, even if they aren’t one. Simply being posh, southern and, preferably, male apparently makes someone more ‘electable’. That should make us all very uncomfortable.
2. Can they unite the Labour party?
If anyone can? People look book at Blair and Brown and say, look they united the party. And it’s true, while their opponents in the party deeply disagreed with them, they accepted their legitimacy — that they won the election. But some people never accepted Corbyn as the leader, despite him winning twice, and they would never accept any left-wing leader of the party. Some critics seriously say that because a left-wing leader won’t be accepted as legitimate — by them! — that they can’t be a successful leader. It’s hardly democratic to give a faction of the party a ‘legitimacy veto’.
But the new leader has to try to reach out to other sections of the party. But it may be the case that other sections of the party simply aren’t interested in a unified party. And a unified party doesn’t mean we put all our disagreements aside, but it does mean that we accept that there is more that unites us than divides us and stop refusing to accept the direction that the membership have decided they want the party to head in.
There is more than one way to create a united party though. Boris Johnson unified the Tory party by throwing out 21 MPs including the likes of Kenneth Clarke (a 49-year parliamentary veteran), and Nicholas Soames (the grandson of Winston Churchill). Is this an option open to the new Labour leader?
Perhaps it is the least bad option. But they will be slaughtered by the press (in a way the Tories didn’t have to face).
Here’s an uncomfortable thought for some, what if the left and right of the party need each other far more than they care to admit.
3. Can they democratise the party?
This stuff really matters. We need to resist the idea that it’s wonky or geeky stuff. Too many seats that we lost in 2017 had Labour MPs or Labour candidates with no links to those constituencies. They weren’t from there and they didn’t live there and they knew nothing of the people that live there. They were chosen by the NEC and trade unions on a stitched-up list of candidates that the local party had zero say over — local members had zero power to nominate even one candidate. This has to change. We need local candidates that can speak for the places they are from and we need local voters to see this. We need candidates that can inspire 50 or more activists weekend after weekend for the next 5 years to be knocking on doors and forming relationships with voters.
We also need automatic reselection. We saw over the last parliament how many poor Labour MPs there were with an over-inflated sense of their own importance. They crowed about their big mandates but when they stood as independents, they all lost and lost badly. If an MP in a safe Labour seat has not had to face selection as the parliamentary candidate in 20 or 30 years, we have a real problem — how long will voters support Labour MPs that aren’t up to the job?
Labour has a responsibility to select the best possible Labour candidate in each seat at every general election. We also have a responsibility to deselect Labour MPs who do nothing but attack the membership and the leadership.
4. Can they stand up to the media?
We’ve seen in the days since the election, a media more interested in covering the Labour party and making sure it comes back to the ideological centre ground than they are in scrutinising a new government with a majority of 80 and plans for radical change.
We have got a problem with a fundamentally biased and hostile media. At best the media give the Tories an easy time. Conservatives claims are taken at face value and Labour claims are presented through the perspective of our critics. At worst, parts of the media are an integral part of the Tory party propaganda machine.
A charm offensive isn’t going to cut it. We need to start calling the media out when they lie and smear us. We need to paint them as part of the establishment and part of the problem.
The new Labour leader needs to run against the media as well as the Tories.
5. Are they tough enough?
We need a bruiser and we need someone who loves a fight.
This is a bit more difficult than the rest of these points to articulate. Jeremy Corbyn had the integrity and principles to stand up to an avalanche of smears and lies. The next leader will need the same but they will also have to love the fight. I don’t see how they win or even survive the next 5 years otherwise.
6. Do they support electoral reform?
It’s time for Labour to ditch the delusion that first-past-the-post will deliver us a Labour government. We’ve won 4 elections in the last 50 years. A commitment to PR makes sense and will perhaps help us form a progressive alliance with the Greens and others.
We have a responsibility to the country to change an electoral system that gives unfettered power to the Tories to radically alter society with a little more than 40% of the vote.
7. Have they got the strategic ability to move Labour forward?
We face questions on Brexit, Scotland and what to do in such a long stretch of opposition. We also face a ruthless Tory party that will do or say whatever they have to, to win, and a largely hostile, dishonest media.
After Brexit what should our Brexit policy be? We could embrace it, but if Brexit goes badly, will we then own it along with the Tories? We were so busy with short term positioning ahead of the election, we didn’t think about the long term or the fact that it’s better to take any stance as long as you do it early and stick to it.
How does Labour gain seats in Scotland? How do we keep Scotland in the Union? Should Scottish Labour support that? We saw Labour collapse in Scotland in 2015. How do we come back?
The next leader will have some big calls to make as soon as they take office.
8. Will they be worth voting for?
“You lose an election, so you abandon some principles. You lose another election, you abandon some more. You lose yet again, so you abandon all your principles. And then you win.”
Is this to be Labour’s fate? Can we only beat the Tories, by becoming them? And if so, will we have won at all?
Does the new leader want a Labour government that will fundamentally change Britain and make it a fairer country? Do they want to alter the political and economic direction of travel Britain has undergone in the last 50 years?
Do they support nationalisation (however limited)? Do they support rich people paying their fair share? Do they support corporations paying any tax at all?
9. Can we trust them?
As much as you can trust any politician, how do we decide if we can trust someone?
The most reliable indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour. Did they support austerity? Did they support the chicken coup against Corbyn in 2016? Have they spent 4 years sniping and attacking the leadership and the membership from the backbenches?
Of course, everyone makes mistakes and change their minds. But once they are elected it will be impossible for the membership to remove them from office. This could really matter. What if the new leader isn’t up the job? What if they have decided to attack the membership to curry favour with Labour MPs or the press or because they have no other strategy to speak of.
Those are my 9 questions and they are all about electability — which is no simple thing. Some contenders for Labour’s top job will claim to have it but unless they can answer the above questions, there’s no reason why we should believe them. And as important as electability, is will they make a future Labour government worth all the effort it takes in getting it elected. It took the Coalition of 2010–15 just one term to undo all of Labour’s work over 13 years, someone will say that’s the best we can hope. I’m not so sure. We need a Labour government that transforms Britain for good.