The Paul Richards column
Diane Abbott’s announcement that she will stand for Leader of the Labour Party has set off a fire cracker at the heart of a hitherto staid affair. Because of her TV pundit status, and her controversial career, the media will go nuts over her. Only John McDonnell has reason for dismay: she will take Campaign Group MPs’ nominations from him, and probably ensure that neither of them will get onto the ballot paper. All those who consider Abbott a joke might reflect that Boris Johnson is Mayor of London. In the age of celebrity, it is the joke candidates who sometimes get the last laugh.
It is none of the other candidates’ faults, but there was something profoundly depressing that each of the declared candidates – David Miliband, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham (who also launches his campaign today) – has near-identical CVs. They are broadly the same age, and thus their politics is influenced by the same factors: the hegemony of Margaret Thatcher, the renewal of Labour under Neil Kinnock, the collapse of Communism, the New Labour project, and the short, disappointing leadership of Gordon Brown. They have all been involved in Labour politics from an early age (although one was a member of the Conservative club at university).
They are male, white and married with young kids. They represent seats in the north of England. They have each served as special advisers, to Blair, Brown and Tessa Jowell. Not only did all of them go to Oxbridge, two of them went to Harvard. Two are comprehensive boys, one is a grammar school boy, and one a public school boy. I’ll leave it to you to work out which is which. Each is talented, intelligent and modern. It is their same-ness, to each other and to Cameron and Clegg, which suggests that Labour leaders from now on are assembled from parts in a factory in Sunderland. If Dianne Abbott can get the 33 names she needs on her nomination papers, she will bring a different politics into the contest, as well as a different race and sex. It is right that the leadership debate should include examination of the hard left-wing position on the economy, defence, Europe, and public services. That doesn’t mean that you have to vote for it.
It is easy to eulogise our past leaders. The distance of time makes their failures and foibles less easy to discern. The warts are harder to see. But a leadership election which pitted Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison and Arthur Greenwood against each other must have been something. Or Callaghan, Foot, Jenkins, Benn, Healey, and Crosland in 1976. That must have been one helluva contest to watch (only MPs had votes). Although even then you could have argued that the candidates were mostly the same: Oxbridge, male and of the war-time generation. With the exception of Michael Foot, each had seen active service in the Second World War: Callaghan in the Royal Navy, Jenkins in military intelligence, Benn in the RAF, Healey as an army logistics officer, and Crosland as a paratrooper. It makes being a researcher at the IPPR, being Tessa Jowell’s assistant, or a bring regular pundit on late-night TV look more than a little lightweight.
It is a shame that the period in which candidates can be nominated by their parliamentary colleagues is so short. MPs need a little more time to make their decision. It would also allow a slightly wider field to emerge. I trust that the NEC’s procedures committee, meeting today, will look again at this. It is right that there is a long campaign over the summer, to draw out the candidates and test their ideas. There should be televised debates and focus groups. If you’ve ever wanted a collection of former cabinet ministers to see your garden, get 20 members of the party round for a BBQ, and you’ll be amazed at how many candidates turn up. During Labour’s deputy leadership contest there were events with almost more candidates than party members.
It is now widely understood that the coronation-style election of Gordon Brown was a mistake, because it did not allow a proper debate about the way forward after Blair, and it did not test the debating and presentational skills of the candidates. Almost a hundred of the Labour MPs who signed Gordon Brown’s nomination papers lost their seats on 6th May. So this time we need a wide field, robust debate, and a forensic discussion of the candidate’s ideas. We need events in every region, and a massive recruitment effort to build on the 13,000 new members who’ve joined since the election.
NEC member Peter Kenyon and others have argued for there to be an election for the post of deputy leader at the same time. It is no criticism of Harriet Harman to suggest such a thing. She is now party leader, ensconced in the Leader’s Office in the House of Commons, actively recruiting staff and making shadow ministerial appointments. She was elected as deputy leader in entirely different circumstances, on the basis of her complementary virtues to Gordon Brown. ‘Radio Two to his Radio Four’ was the pitch, as I recall. A new contest for deputy, and a discussion about the role of deputy in opposition (a campaigner not a legislator, surely?) could let all kinds of candidates to come forward, including new MPs such as Stephen Twigg, old hands such as Yvette Cooper, or even Dianne Abbott who could stand for both positions as Roy Hattersley did in 1983.
The election for leader is focussed on choosing someone with an appeal to the voters, especially in the south and south east of England, and an instinctive understanding of skilled, and semi-skilled workers’ concerns (job security, immigration, housing, anti-social behaviour, and so on). The ability to ‘talk human’ to a voter concerned about immigration; emotional intelligence with a burglary victim or injured soldier, empathy with parents out of their minds with worry about gangs, drugs or school discipline, knowing how much a pint of milk costs. These abilities will be as important as their policy on the EU, environment or electoral reform.
Most of all, we will be electing a future Prime Minister, not simply a party leader. It’s early days, but as we assess the candidates, we should ask not only will they get the members’ hearts racing at the party conference, and be good on TV, but also will they look at ease in Number Ten, at PMQs, and on the world stage.