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13 January 2020updated 14 Jan 2020 10:49am

Jess Phillips is asking Labour members the wrong question

Majoring on electability is a big risk if you are not already a nationwide figure.

By Stephen Bush

Jess Phillips’s pitch to be the leader of the Labour Party has two pillars. The first is that she is “Labour’s Boris Johnson”: we are in an era of big personalities and straight-talkers. The second is that she will offer Labour an answer to the sitting Prime Minister. I’ve written in more detail before about what the strengths and risks of that approach are. I’m not sure it can work but I think it’s the best available way for Phillips to fight and win the leadership election. If there is a route to 50 per cent of the vote plus one for her among the Labour selectorate, it surely runs through the “I’m your Boris Johnson” route.

The problem is that the second pillar, however, is very poorly chosen. It’s to major on the fact that Labour has lost four elections on the bounce, and that the party needs to win again. You can win internal elections majoring on electability – it was this appeal that David Cameron, Tony Blair and Johnson all put at the heart of their bids. However, there is a crucial difference between Phillips and two of those candidates: Blair and Johnson were national figures.

When Blair was running on an electability ticket in 1994, he had been a hugely successful shadow home secretary, had overseen a serious of controversial and eye-catching changes to party policy as employment secretary, and was the most well-known and popular Labour politician in the country by a distance. (When John Smith died, David Cameron and Michael Howard’s other special adviser, Patrick Rock, turned to one another and said: “That’s it. Tony Blair will become Labour leader and we’re absolutely fucked.”)

When Johnson ran on an electability ticket in 2019, he did so having won two mayoral elections in London. While his popularity is now precisely the inverse of what it was in 2012, it was taken as sufficient proof of concept that Tory MPs put their doubts about his ability to govern to one side in order to back him as leader.

Phillips is fairly well-known among the party membership, but her overall profile among the electorate as a whole is pretty low. Asking the public which candidate they think is the “most electable” is akin to asking them “which of these have you heard of?” We can use this to meaningfully assess whether Labour would be better off picking off politicians who the public has actually heard of: Keir Starmer, say, Yvette Cooper or David Miliband. We can’t use it to meaningfully assess whether they would be better off picking Phillips or Lisa Nandy or Starmer.

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Cameron had an even lower profile than Phillips at the start of the contest, but that didn’t matter, because the only genuine national figure in the race was Ken Clarke, whose pro-European views meant that he had no chance of being elected by the Tory membership. He simply had to make himself the best-known and most plausible-seeming candidate out of a field of obscure nobodies, and he did so with aplomb.

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But Phillips cannot do that because she starts with a major deficit between herself and Starmer in terms of their general profile, and Starmer isn’t – at least based on all the available evidence – unacceptable to Labour members in the way that Clarke was to Conservative ones.

The problem with Phillips’s electability argument is that it is failing the first test of any political dividing line: never to frame an election on a question to which you are not the answer. Her shaky second pillar may yet destroy any advantage she builds up with the first.