What does a modern Labour Party expect from its leader?

What the party has never had and needs today more than ever is a theory of leadership.

This is the time of year when Ed Miliband gets a pasting from the polls and the media. It has happened regularly since he became Labour leader in 2010. And virtually all the comments, criticisms, and attacks involve the crucial and dangerously undermining issue of leadership authority. Is Miliband up to it? Is he really leading the party? Is he a credible future prime minister? Where are the policies? Where is the leadership? His – fewer – defenders basically stress the opposite – that he is a good leader because he absorbs the criticism and is in fact calm, ruthless, and determined, or else that it doesn’t matter if the leader is less popular than the party, the party will win anyway.

This cacophony confuses and is drowning out two related but very separate issues: the question of the elaboration of policies and the party’s 'voice' on the one hand, and the question of Miliband’s leadership of the party and eventually of the country on the other. For a hundred years the party has been organised around the former – policies, policy programmes, and manifestos – its very existence is based around these; it knows nothing, however, about the latter – the role of leadership within a centre-left party.

Let’s look at them separately. First, policies. The current lack of policies is no accident. What the party, backed, indeed led, by the leadership has been doing in this area is nothing short of a fundamental ideological revision. For the last two years, the Policy Review has been a review of social theory and ideas, not of policy; and the input of the responsible capitalism, relational state, Blue Labour and One Nation thinkers in the party has seen a dramatic attempt to take the party away from New Labour, even away from Clement Attlee’s Labour, towards, or back to, an earlier tradition of localism, mutualism, community, self-help, solidarity, and self-reliance. And the rhetorical efforts of the Policy Review chair, Jon Cruddas, have been to take this emerging narrative and modernise it.

The move, over the next two years to a real policy review will be the test of whether One Nation is underpinned by a theory of power – this will determine whether this newly-fashioned craft, built from many traditional materials, will fly. But the critics will be confounded as the barrage of new policies emerges over the coming months. The question is not whether there will be policies, but whether the policies, based upon One Nation, will be bold, far-reaching, and inspirational enough for the party to deserve to be carried back to power and government.

This brings us to the other issue, Miliband’s personal presence and leadership. The party – rightly or wrongly - has always had theories of power and the policies that flow from them, theories of how capitalism works and what should be done about it to create the good society. What it has never had, and today needs more than ever in a society with unrelenting focus on the issue, is a theory of leadership itself. For the Conservative Party, a theory of leadership is hard-wired into the DNA. Leadership is a give and there are two desirable types: the grandee and the executive manager. Cameron is a hybrid of the two. Ironically, Margaret Thatcher was not an ideal-type Tory leader at all, but a happy accident that the Tories ran with, most of the time in a state of complete bemusement.

On the left though, there is a serious problem. In this age of perpetual media scrutiny, spin, and leadership image, the UK left has no idea what leadership is. In fact, it does not really believe it exists, or should exist. If Miliband’s personal popularity falters in the polls there is a storm of criticism, much of it little more sophisticated than the tabloid press’s attacks: he should have been here in the summer; where was he, in France somewhere? And where are those policies? The Tories grabbed all the headlines (Did they? What headlines?). François Hollande decided not to go on holiday this year and his ratings remain catastrophic; Angela Merkel did and hers are stratospheric. As the adage says, be careful what you wish for.

The left needs to ask itself a whole series of questions about leaders and leadership. What is the nature of leadership for the left today? What is its place in the traditions of the British left? In what way should the leader personify the party in the public sphere? What is the relationship of the leader to the party’s narrative or narratives? What is the role and place of leadership competition in a modern centre-left party? Are there leadership archetypes in the leftist imagination (and are they all male?). Practically, what should the leader of a major political party be doing in the silly season when the media can’t find solid political stories to talk about?

Miliband did extremely well at the 2012 conference – even the media agreed. But how should he talk to the party, the media, and the public between conferences? As well as developing the party’s ideas, expressing its deeply-held beliefs, and bringing forward a raft of policies for the next election, the party should – before collapsing once again into Miliband bashing - pay more attention to this historical and ideological blind-spot impeding its view of the world and of politics: what constitutes leadership in the left’s imagination and what does a modern Labour Party expect from its leader?

Ed Miliband makes his way to give a speech on the high street in Worcester town centre on April 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe, specialising in French politics and the discourse of leadership.

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.