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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.