The emergence of six declared candidates for Labour leader is refreshing after the non-contest last time. Let’s hope that the Parliamentary Labour Party enables enough of them to be nominated, so that members get to make a meaningful choice about the future policy and ideological direction of the party.
It is a shame, in that sense, that Jon Cruddas is not running, meaning that there is a gap, with four candidates from a broadly New Labour heritage (representing variants on the Blarite and Brownite strands within it) and two from the hard left, but no one from the soft-left tradition in the party.
But this isn’t just a debate about policy and ideology: the party leader is also our “campaigner-in-chief”. And, as a candidate for Labour’s National Executive Committee, I am also judging the candidates on their ability to connect with voters — particularly the C2 skilled working classes, where our vote collapsed this time — and to inspire and motivate activists and recruit members.
I want to know what their ideas are for regenerating a battered and tired party and turning it back into the formidable fighting force it was in 1997.
The next leader needs to demonstrate that he or she appreciates the role of party members. We need a balance of rights and responsibilities. If you expect members to work their socks off for a Labour victory, then their rights in matters such as candidate selection and shortlisting need to be respected.
We need a new leader who sees the union link not as an embarrassing yet useful source of big money, but as a way of tapping in to the ideas, energy and campaigning skills of millions of ordinary union members. Our organic link with the unions should be a huge source of strength — used properly, it would enable us to reconnect with many of the people who felt we had stopped understanding their aspirations at this election.
We need a new leader who hasn’t given up on the idea of a mass-membership party, and one that genuinely reflects society rather than being dominated by the metropolitan chattering classes, as it is now. Eighteen thousand new members since the election is a great start, but not enough. We need imaginative thinking about how to make membership accessible — £39 a year is prohibitive for the people we were set up to represent — and worthwhile, offering something back beyond the right to deliver leaflets in the rain.
And we need a new leader who is committed to making us a truly national party again. Politically, he or she needs to be able to appeal to voters in the south outside London, where we are a weak third and have only ten MPs.
Organisationally, he or she needs to be prepared to put resources in this early part of the electoral cycle into suburban and rural areas we had written off — so that there are functioning constituency parties everywhere and Labour councillors on every council — and into safe seats where we have let the party atrophy.
In an era when the Lib Dems have forfeited the right to any anti-Tory votes, where coalitions are based on a mandate defined as the total national vote you get, and where we may be heading towards a new electoral system, there can be no “no-go areas” for Labour.
My judgement is that Ed Miliband is the candidate most likely to rise to these challenges of reconnection with voters and regeneration of our party, but I am pleased to say that at least four of the six “get it”. And that leads me to be very optimistic about Labour’s potential for recovery.