What Labour needs from its new leader

Ed Miliband is the candidate most likely to reconnect with voters and regenerate the party.

The emergence of six declared candidates for Labour leader is refreshing after the non-contest last time. Let's hope that the Parliamentary Labour Party enables enough of them to be nominated, so that members get to make a meaningful choice about the future policy and ideological direction of the party.

It is a shame, in that sense, that Jon Cruddas is not running, meaning that there is a gap, with four candidates from a broadly New Labour heritage (representing variants on the Blarite and Brownite strands within it) and two from the hard left, but no one from the soft-left tradition in the party.

But this isn't just a debate about policy and ideology: the party leader is also our "campaigner-in-chief". And, as a candidate for Labour's National Executive Committee, I am also judging the candidates on their ability to connect with voters -- particularly the C2 skilled working classes, where our vote collapsed this time -- and to inspire and motivate activists and recruit members.

I want to know what their ideas are for regenerating a battered and tired party and turning it back into the formidable fighting force it was in 1997.

The next leader needs to demonstrate that he or she appreciates the role of party members. We need a balance of rights and responsibilities. If you expect members to work their socks off for a Labour victory, then their rights in matters such as candidate selection and shortlisting need to be respected.

We need a new leader who sees the union link not as an embarrassing yet useful source of big money, but as a way of tapping in to the ideas, energy and campaigning skills of millions of ordinary union members. Our organic link with the unions should be a huge source of strength -- used properly, it would enable us to reconnect with many of the people who felt we had stopped understanding their aspirations at this election.

We need a new leader who hasn't given up on the idea of a mass-membership party, and one that genuinely reflects society rather than being dominated by the metropolitan chattering classes, as it is now. Eighteen thousand new members since the election is a great start, but not enough. We need imaginative thinking about how to make membership accessible -- £39 a year is prohibitive for the people we were set up to represent -- and worthwhile, offering something back beyond the right to deliver leaflets in the rain.

And we need a new leader who is committed to making us a truly national party again. Politically, he or she needs to be able to appeal to voters in the south outside London, where we are a weak third and have only ten MPs.

Organisationally, he or she needs to be prepared to put resources in this early part of the electoral cycle into suburban and rural areas we had written off -- so that there are functioning constituency parties everywhere and Labour councillors on every council -- and into safe seats where we have let the party atrophy.

In an era when the Lib Dems have forfeited the right to any anti-Tory votes, where coalitions are based on a mandate defined as the total national vote you get, and where we may be heading towards a new electoral system, there can be no "no-go areas" for Labour.

My judgement is that Ed Miliband is the candidate most likely to rise to these challenges of reconnection with voters and regeneration of our party, but I am pleased to say that at least four of the six "get it". And that leads me to be very optimistic about Labour's potential for recovery.

Luke Akehurst is a Labour councillor in Hackney and was a parliamentary candidate in 2001 and 2005. He is a candidate in the current election for Labour's NEC and blogs at lukeakehurst.blogspot.com.

Special offer: get 12 issues of the New Statesman for just £5.99 plus a free copy of "Liberty in the Age of Terror" by A C Grayling.

Getty
Show Hide image

What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage