Alan Johnson, on the campaign trail in Hull. Photo:Getty Images
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Having an interim leader would be a disaster for Labour

Far from revitalising Labour, having an interim leader would just damage it further.

The idea of installing an interim leader to steer the Labour party through the next couple of years of this parliament is one of those superficially attractive proposals currently doing the rounds. “Why rush”, goes the argument, “in selecting a leader? Why not pause and reflect. Install someone for a couple of years while the party does its soul-searching and comes up with the right answer.”

The Guardian is the latest to float the suggestion in an editorial column yesterday, urging the party to avoid rushing into a decision by having Alan Johnson lead the party until 2017. Labour should “think, discuss and choose, in that order,” it says.

The excellent Conor Pope at LabourList has already pointed out that holding off for a couple of years would simply “extend the leadership contest into 2017, not postpone it until then”. Yet there is a precedent for having two leaders in a parliament and things working out well. Two precedents, in fact.

Both of Labour’s most electorally successful leaders, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, took over mid-parliament. In both cases it was due to the untimely deaths of their predecessors. The shock of the new and the sudden release of momentum a new leader brings were telling in both cases. Wilson won in 1964 and Blair in 1997.

But here’s the obvious flaw. The deaths of Hugh Gaitskell in 1963 and John Smith in 1994 were, of course, completely unexpected. What the Guardian is talking about is diarising a change of leader in two years’ time. Rather than providing Labour with a mid-parliament fillip, it would simply unleash a destructive and unseemly bun-fight over the succession. The inevitability of a leadership contest would see rival front benchers show-ponying in their roles for two years and ratchet up Labour’s already poisonous addiction to internal plotting as leadership campaigns were assembled at the margins. The talk would be of nothing else, never mind the deal-making, intrigue and backbiting. The party would be paralysed.

This aside, a temporary leader would make formulating strategy and policy nigh on impossible. Presumably they would have been put in place without the involvement of ordinary members, and would therefore lack the legitimacy to do anything other than mind the shop.  It’s all very well shelving a decision about whether rail nationalisation should be in the next manifesto, until the appointment of the permanent leader, but what would happen if there was a vote on committing troops to a conflict? How would the interim leader respond to big, emerging issues if it was clear a large minority of the party felt differently?

Then there’s the problem that they might not want to leave. Indeed, what if they were deemed to be more popular than the alternatives? The complaint from rivals would be that they had unfairly used incumbency for their own advantage. Cue the dust up of all dust-ups.

But the whole idea of an interim leader rests upon the proposition that being in opposition is inherently wasted time. Shorn of executive power, frontbench roles are not worth Lyndon Johnson’s pitcher of warm spit. This is dangerously naïve. Sharp and persistent shadow ministers force real ministers to do things they don’t want to do and stop them doing some things they would like to.

A good opposition can still influence the political agenda. How much of David Cameron’s rash election pledge to spend an additional £8 billion on the NHS was down to Andy Burnham’s relentless onslaught at the government’s costly NHS reorganisation?

Indeed, a strong and effective frontbench is essential to the functioning of government. Labour politicians need to be fully committed to fulfilling their roles in scrutinising legislation and making alternative arguments. They should not be off-stage plotting. The last thing the Labour party needs is two years of indolence and introspection. It cannot afford an interregnum while it undergoes the political equivalent of psychoanalysis. No, what the party needs instead is a dose of cognitive behavioural therapy.

Accept what went wrong. Fix it. Learn from it. Choose a new leader. Get on with it.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.