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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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.