It is odd that the Labour Party didn’t have a debate about the central question of what kind of Leadership the party and country needs before setting off on the current leadership contest. If we had done so we might have concluded that three tasks face us.
The first is to offer clarity of vision as to the kind of place we want our country to be. The second is to find a path through the new political landscape, given the rise of insurgent political parties to the Left and Right, as well as Osborne’s attempt to camp out on what he have always thought was “our territory”. The third task is to create a party which is adapted to the new times which have come with the new century.
A leader who represents the old ways, a ‘good Westminster performer’, will not do.
Labour cannot go on in the same old way. We need a fresh set of policies for 2020. Because the country has changed. But we will also need a new way of working. We need to start from the premise that no successful movement started in Westminster and was rolled out from on high. This is the lesson of Podemos, Syriza and even the SNP. But it also the lesson of our own history.
Tristram Hunt made exactly this point in his recent lecture. But his prescription of a politics of triangulation combined with an insurgent new movement will not work. He was right about the need for a new movement, but people are not looking for a politics of fudge and mudge. They want a new vision for these new times.
The election results reveal that things need to change. At the core of our problem is that the party has never really resolved its central purpose.
2008 was not the first time that Labour was in office when there was a crash. Ramsay Macdonald’s government was faced with a crisis too. The leadership then capitulated to the demands of the financial markets. The Labour party split and had to be rebuilt.
Thanks to the leadership of Ed Miliband the party has not split this time. But the truth is that our current leadership election debates show that we have not as a party come to a settled view of the 2008 crisis, its causes or its aftermath.
Commenting on Labour’s plight after 1941, R H Tawney didn’t mince his words. He argued that ‘The Labour Party is hesitant in action because it is divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could because it does not know what it wants.” This lack of a clearsighted vision he goes on to say leads to “intellectual timidity, conservatism and conventionality “.
Listening to much of the current debate about Labour’s future, one can hear Tawney’s words echo down the generations.
We need a leader who will speak with clarity and act with boldness. Our economy is not working for most people. The Tories simply offer more of the same. But no one who looks closely at Osborne’s recent budget could argue that he lacks boldness. His central purpose is no less than to redefine the centre of gravity of British politics for a generation.
Electing a leader who occupies a variant of the of the current cosy consensus world view will not deliver a majority to the party. And this is because a party of the centre-left cannot reconcile the needs of its electorate with the desire for continuity.
Therefore we need to offer a clean break with the recent past. But simply changing our policy orientation will not work either. We need a new kind of leadership. It will not do to ask the party to back the candidate who looks, sounds like the rest of the political class.
If we look back to the Labour Party leadership after the collapse of the MacDonald government, they were faced by an overwhelmingly strong Conservative party. The temptation at that time might have been to concede the ground ideologically to the Tories as some are arguing that we should do now. But in the 1930s Labour’s leaders remained steadfast in their beliefs and our values.
But Labour in opposition during those years did something else as well as holding true to our values. It also became a wide movement. The party renewed itself and its connections with the communities they sought to represent. With the left book clubs, the Clarion Cycle movement, discussion groups, rank and file mobilisation on the questions of war and peace etc., the Labour movement began the task of intellectual and social renewal.
All of this energy meant that by the time of the Second World War, Labour had recovered and the ground was prepared for entry into the war time coalition and then Attlee’s transformative government.
Some of the current leadership candidates appear to have accepted the old model of politics. This presupposes a single leader who is almost omniscient and who holds all the reins of power in their office.
This is a profound mistake based on a false understanding of our party, our history and our country. In the first place, no one person can have all the answers to all the problems. Strong leaders, with mistaken ideas can lead us in the wrong direction. In any event, everyone saw the vitriolic attacks which were launched on the person of Ed Miliband. This will happen again and again to radical Labour leaders. The only way to respond is build a movement which is wide and deeply rooted in our communities to counterbalance the pressures of the British establishment.
Labour in opposition and equally in office will need to become a crusade again to put right the many mistakes of the old order which David Cameron and George Osborne represent. The new times we live in require us to build a new kind of social movement capable of creating, sustaining and renewing our party both in the opposition years, but also in government. This means changing the party’s vertical structures which were designed just after the First World War, into a more horizontal, networked, cellular shape fit for the Google age.
It is in the interests of both the leadership and the ordinary members that we end the present huge gulf of mistrust and mutual suspicion which exists between the two.
Two of the leadership candidates have said that they would not serve in a shadow cabinet if the party membership elect someone they disagree with. This is a profound mistake. It seeks to de-legitimise not so much simply the winning candidate, but all those tens of thousands of members who voted for him.
I conclude therefore that style of leader which the Labour Party needs will make it clear that they will:
- End the command and control relationship with the party’s grass roots by recognising that top down models do not work in an age when deference rightly died long ago
- Build strong relationships at branch and constituency level with local communities, and establish new ties with other progressive movements in the country, including adopting fresh ways of organising developed by innovative social activists
- Change the processes of decision-making so that policies are no longer parachuted from on high out of the Leader’s office with little prior engagement with the wider movement. This means for example restoring rights to the Annual Conference.
- Develop new ways of allowing the membership of the party to select more local candidates from backgrounds which remain unrepresented in council chambers and the various Parliaments, with no further manipulation of short lists by the centre
- In a 24/7 media culture it is inevitable that we will give our leader scope to act with rapidity and agility, but the leadership candidate who ought to win is the one who will create new structures of accountability by the leader to the shadow cabinet, PLP and the wider party.
The party needs leaders, but it also needs to be a movement. In order to modernise our country we first need a modern style of leader, emerging out of a wider political movement to whom they will hold themselves accountable.