Five reasons why Labour should take time to elect a new leader


3:21 pm - May 10th 2010

by Sunder Katwala    


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The Labour party is likely to be in opposition very soon. Gordon Brown has done much for Labour since entering Parliament in the party’s darkest days of 1983, including thirteen years as Chancellor and then Prime Minister.

His strengths and weaknesses as a leader have been endlessly debated, but his final resilient contribution was to turn the billed David Cameron coronation into the election which nobody won, even if Labour must now ultimately accept that it lost.

Everybody knows that Gordon Brown will not lead the party into another General Election. So he will no doubt step down as party leader at some time in the near future.

What happens next could be crucial. We therefore remind you of Katwala’s first rule of political recovery – How to get a leadership election right

No party which loses a General Election should elect its next leader within the first six months following the defeat.

The Labour party should not use its Autumn conference to crown a new leader – it should use the conference to put the spotlight on the contenders for a leadership election which takes place later in the Autumn.

This can easily be achieved, either by Brown staying on as a caretaker leader or, if he prefers to step down earlier, by his elected deputy Harriet Harman to be acting leader. (The Cabinet could choose an acting successor if Brown departed while still in office – but there is no good reason for this not to be Harman.

The only possible argument is wanting a ‘neutral’ caretaker if Harman wants to run as a leadership candidate, but Margaret Beckett was both a candidate and acting leader in 1994). After an enormously male-dominated election campaign on all sides, the party might seem to be acting rather strangely if it usurped the role of its elected female deputy.

Not convinced? Here are five reasons.

1. If the Tories had not followed this approach in 2005, David Davis and not David Cameron would probably have just led the Conservative Party into the General Election. (Right-wing Tories who blame David Cameron for the electorate’s reluctance to vote Tory no doubt think that would have been a triumph – but perhaps not).

So Gaby Hinsliff is right to advocate the Michael Howard model of leadership transition.

2. No Leader of the Opposition elected immediately after an election defeat has ever made it to Prime Minister in the post-war period.

Here’s the history. Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, Blair and Cameron were all elected later in the cycle, while Kinnock, Hague and Duncan Smith were elected straight away. There is surely an element of coincidence, but there are also important reasons why this is a rational approach.

The Tories took six weeks to elect William Hague after being crushed in 1997; and began balloting MPs within a month in 2001, with IDS crowned by September. On neither occasion did the party properly debate its election defeat. A Labour party whose new MPs, tomorrow morning, have their mind primarily on which Miliband brother they may prefer to nominate as leader risks being in denial about defeat – and the need for a proper debate about the party’s future.

3. Nobody in the party really knows what any of the potential contenders really think about Labour’s record and future agenda – since they have almost all been entirely constrained by collective responsibility in office. Nor can a strategy for opposing the Tories be set out very clearly before we see how the next government approaches.

So “who should be the new leader” is a premature question before the party has begun a post-election debate. Whoever the candidates, it would be a healthier election if we hear a wide range of contributions .

The dynamic of a contest will inevitably see much convergence in language and positioning between candidates – for example, if Ed Balls and David Miliband were both candidates, I predict that a great many of their statements about Labour’s record and future would prove pretty much interchangeable, even as the newspapers tell us they offer starkly different future agendas. This risks the real debate taking place in code, in newspaper commentaries, and the proper debate taking place after the contest ends.

The real gain is not so much that somebody different may emerge, as that the party would have a healthier debate in selecting its leader. So the biggest gainer from a longer process would be whoever is elected at the end of it. Strong candidates among the current front-runners could hardly object. Whose supporters would want to advocate a quick contest on the grounds that they could anticipate doing worse if the party took more time?

4. Labour needs a very open election process which brings more people to Labour.

After the Coronation of 2007, it does not need a quick fix in 2010. Setting out a timetable now would enable the party to invite supporters – and potential converts, who may include anti-Tory LibDems and others – that they can play a role in debating and deciding how Labour rebuilds. This is the ideal opportunity to use the party’s new presence in social networks to bring more people into the party as members, to open up the party’s culture and debates to to build campaigning strength for the next election too.

As Hopi Sen tweets:

As soon as Con-Dem alliance launches Labour should invite angry LibDems to send in their membership cards to get free Labour membership

5. Why throw away a chance to engage voters and to be in the media and political spotlight this Autumn?

Oppositions are not very interesting: the Labour party will have to adjust to this after more than a decade in power. An immediate contest will be very little noticed with most of the focus on the new government, and by the Autumn the question will be why the new leader has not yet broken through. By contrast, using the party conference as a showcase for the candidates is also the best way to simulate the new tests of leadership created by the new televised Prime Minsiterial debates.

The party should not fear an open debate and contest. Rumours of a civil war are enormously exaggerated, but risk an aversion to opening up the party’s political culture in a way that is necessary to recover. The only credible counter-argument is that there may be a very quick election this Autumn. But we shall know very soon how likely this is.

In any event, most of the Labour leadership contenders have rather more experience in government than David Cameron: there would still be important advantages in as much public engagement and profile in the next Labour leadership contest as is possible in those circumstances too.

——-
Cross-posted from Next Left

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Elections2010 ,Realpolitik

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Reader comments


Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, Blair and Cameron were all elected later in the cycle, while Kinnock, Hague and Duncan Smith were elected straight away.

Is it fair to include Blair in the list? He only became leader due to John Smith dying.

The one issue that you have missed is what if there is an autumn election. Selecting a leader early will give him/her the opportunity to display their leadership to the public. If we wait until Conference then the leader could well have only a month before he/she is thrust into an election. Look to 1974. The Tories did not change leader between Feb and Oct because they knew that another election was soon. We will be in the same position but, as you say, there is a need for a new leader. So on balance sooner rather than later seems more prudent.

Brown needs to go NOW. Today if poss. He is not doing any good hanging about like a bad smell.

Nick Robinson on the BBC said if Lib/Con talks don’t work out Lib/ lab could negotiate with Brown staying on for 3 months. NO, NO, NO. It just makes Brown and Labour look desperate.

Labour needs to get it’s act together fast because things could move very quickly in the current climate and they need to be able to show that they have learned some lessons and moved on. Brown just hanging about looks like they have learned nothing.

It’s rather a shame Brown hasn’t had the grace to fall on his sword quickly, and with some dignity, when it could have done some good immediately post election. It’s something of an indictment of the Labour party that they are so short of talent that the alternatives aren’t much more appetising than Pa Broon.

Although it’s tempting to say that things could have been different if John Smith hadn’t died (and a “what if” that many who hate New Labour often try to comfort themselves with, I’m not so sure. Hard to see how he could have proven worse than Blair and Brown I suppose…?

Gordon Brown has done much for Labour

Shurely “Gordon Brown has done much to Labour”?

5 – I’d have gone for “Gordon Brown has done for Labour” personally…

No, Brown needs to go now. the Caretaker should be someone senior without ambitions, but respected and popular enough in the event of an autumn election. Jack Straw fits the bill.

“It’s rather a shame Brown hasn’t had the grace to fall on his sword quickly, and with some dignity, when it could have done some good immediately post election”

Could not agree more. He should have gone on F

excellent piece Sunder.

“It’s rather a shame Brown hasn’t had the grace to fall on his sword quickly, and with some dignity, when it could have done some good immediately post election”

Could not agree more. He should have resigned on Friday. It would stop the impression that he is clinging on for dear life. I know we all know on here he is going, but to some people who do not follow politics it looks like he really does think he can stay on.

Labour’s refusal to get rid of him has hurt them for the last 12 months, and now that they have lost power he is still hurting them.

11. Alisdair Cameron

Reason 6, (perhaps a forlorn hope): someone genuinely principled, untainted by neo-liberalism,cronyism or plain careerism emerges as a viable contender, rather than the dismal few (your Balls, Milibands) who are already limbering up and jockeying to take over.

I suspect Sunder – and others – underestimate just how much Brown is loathed by the public at large. He needs to leave as swiftly as possible so Labour can regroup and rebuild, ready for a fight this autumn/winter or next spring when the LibCon alliance inevitably crumbles.

@4: constitutionally Brown can’t just leave: there needs to be another government waiting to take over first. Although it would force Cameron’s hand…

11

Do the words “New Labour”, “needle” and “haystack” spring to mind?

I disagree with the “fall on sword” comments. Brown needs to say that he is fulfilling his constitutional duties, which is to remain as PM until there is a new government. What is important is that he needs to say that there are just two viable options, a Con-Dem coalition or a Tory minority government. That would neutralise the ignorant rants that he is “clinging on to power” (he isn’t, he’s doing exactly what the Cabinet Secretary said he should do according to our constitutional conventions) and it will push the media scrutiny over to the Tories and LibDems.

15. Gaf the Horse

For all the people stating “Brown needs to go NOW” and similar, he can’t. If he resigns then there will be no PM and therefore no government. In that situation it comes to the Queen to decide who will form the next government, and she is duty bound to only offer it to the person who could get their Queen’s speech through parliament. At the moment no-one can possibly do that so who does she approach? Cameron? He’s still deep in trying to cut a deal with the LDs. Another Labour politician? No possibility (at the moment) of a majority. The best he could say is that he will tender his resignation as soon as the CON/LD pact is sorted, but it’s looking increasingly like that won’t happen, and his resignation could be a valuable bargaining chip in the event of a deal with the Lib Dems.
He’s actually doing the best thing for both the country, (keeping a legitimate government in place until a new one can take over), and the Labour party, (keeping the options open for a negotiated settlement with the LDs).

14

His perceived duty to soldier on is outweighed by the urgent need to remove him as one of the chief roadblocks to progress. Labour are quite capable of finding a caretaker to fill the suit.

Your two stated options aren’t the only ones, and given what a lot of LD activists are saying, the Con/LD option is a bit of a dead letter unless Cameron delivers something on PR which his party would lynch him for trying to deliver.

So… if a Con/LD coalition doesn’t happen, you’re left with a minority Tory administration, or a Lab/LD minority, or a rainbow coalition. The first might be fun to watch, the second is no more intrinsically ridiculous than the first, and the third would be hard to manage.. tho not impossible.

Of course, a few days of uncertainty could have been avoided if Clegg and the LD’s had simply said that PR was a deal breaker before even starting talks. That way the Tories would have had to put up or shut up, and the LD’s wouldn’t have looked shifty.

17. Yurrzem!

Why do Labour need to woo Lib Dems fleeing their party in the event of a split? The move to the centre-right is what has caused Labour’s electoral demise. They need to construct an up-to-date leftwing agenda. I doubt reject Lib-Dems would be much help.

I still have trouble finding anyone untainted by New Labourism with the talent to lead the party anywhere other than towards more of the same waffly centrist crap with only a nice smile and a TV personality instead of sound progressive leftwing policies. (Takes deep breath). Grump.

An alternative name for this post: “I don’t want to be seen as part of the fratricidal bloodletting and clearing out of the garbage at the top of the party that is so sorely needed if we are to ever remember why we went into this politics stuff in the first place”

I suppose it makes sense for the GenSec of the Fabian Society to not rub up Brown and his establishment the wrong way until they’re kicked out, but please. I think anyone can see it is in the interests of the country, let alone the Labour Party, to depose Brown as soon as humanly possible.

Sunder,

Nobody in the party really knows what any of the potential contenders really think about Labour’s record and future agenda – since they have almost all been entirely constrained by collective responsibility in office.

What we can reasonably say is that none of those in office felt that the decisions made under collective responsibility were so objectionable that they ought to resign (except for Robin Cook, of course).

Well, he’s just announced he’s going to quit soonish so it looks like he didn’t read this one 😉
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/8672859.stm

Yeah, you got that one pretty wrong, Sunder 🙂

am i missing something here? brown was leader of a party in power for 13 years with most of the media against him and what was the result? a hung parliament. not great but what does that say about cameron? after 10 years in power is any party going to be very popular whoever the leader is?
i’m loving this election ,certain journalists (eg adam boulton of sky,as well i’m sure his boss murdoch)who are desparate for clegg to prop up cameron are getting increasingly frustrated. haven’t enjoyed watching an election like this for years.

@22

True that! My stocks of popcorn have been running low since watching the Tories implode at the idea of sharing power with the knit-yr-own-muesli Libdems… 😀

Yea , The Tory media are really showing their hand now. Sky has lost any claim to non bias media. It becomes more like Fox every day.

I guess if you take the Murdoch shilling, you have to play the Murdoch song.

Adam Boulton losing it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUbOhq1q07Y

Are we seeing the end of the Murdoch empire?

26. Sunder Katwala

S.Pill, Mark @20, 21

yes – that didn’t really get the message over in time.

I don’t back away from the argument, even if we are going to ignore it.

Some strong points here Sunder.

I certainly don’t want the next Labour Party leader emerging from an attempt by the Gen Sec of a major union to bounce party members or, indeed, from the obscure terms of some chat over the table in an Islington eating-house. There’s no rush, and certainly nothing to require the short circuiting of democracy. Ought not the new politics to start, as it were, at home.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Five reasons why Labour should take time to elect a new leader http://bit.ly/9u2YGq

  2. sunny hundal

    Agree with this. RT @libcon: Five reasons why Labour should take time to elect a new leader http://bit.ly/9u2YGq

  3. Tracy Steadman

    RT @libcon: Five reasons why Labour should take time to elect a new leader http://bit.ly/9u2YGq

  4. Peter Campbell

    RT @sunny_hundal: Agree with this. RT @libcon: Five reasons why Labour should take time to elect a new leader http://bit.ly/9u2YGq <-Me too!

  5. sdv_duras

    RT @libcon: Five reasons why Labour should take time to elect a new leader http://bit.ly/9u2YGq

  6. Leon Green

    RT @libcon Five reasons why Labour should take time to elect a new leader http://bit.ly/9u2YGq <<<Listen up Labour folk.

  7. Helen Lambert

    Five reasons why Labour should take time to elect a new leader: http://j.mp/akiHFl

  8. Matt Searle

    Good decision from Brown but September too soon to go. See @libcon why Labour should take time to elect a new leader http://bit.ly/9u2YGq

  9. blogs of the world

    Five reasons why Labour should take time to elect a new leader. by Sunder Katwala May 10, … http://reduce.li/wvr3y2 #reason

  10. DanH

    Whilst we await ConDem agreement, consensus that Lab needs a proper debate: http://bit.ly/cQr52A http://bit.ly/axfFJW http://bit.ly/9u2YGq

  11. Tweets that mention Five reasons why Labour should take time to elect a new leader -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Tracy Steadman, Liberal Conspiracy and DanH, sunny hundal. sunny hundal said: Agree with this. RT @libcon: Five reasons why Labour should take time to elect a new leader http://bit.ly/9u2YGq […]

  12. Richard Davies

    @Kevin_Maguire http://liberalconspiracy.org/2010/05/10/five-reasons-why-labour-should-take-time-to-elect-a-new-leader/





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