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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.