The thing is, they’re all Labour, so they’d all do OK. And with preference voting, I get to support all of them to different degrees so support for one candidate or another isn’t necessarily a rejection of the others.
But none of them is an Obama waiting to bloom and that’s really the problem.
It comes down to this, if you are a special adviser who has been parachuted or “helped” into a safe Labour seat, then you have been bought and paid for by a powerful patron. Your accountability is to the person who got you the seat, not to the local members or voters. This isn’t black and white, there is a balance of accountabilities at play, but the parachuted MP’s accountability is heavily weighted in favour of their patron or faction. This isn’t particularly healthy for a party with pretensions to equality and democracy.
So looking at those hustings panels of five, I wonder what it would have looked like if Doncaster and Normanton had had open and fair selections. I wonder who would have been standing there representing South Shields. I wonder how competitive was the selection in Leigh. Or who might have been in one of the other dozens of seats that have been held by parachutes in recent years, who have nearly all gone on to hold ministerial office.
Would we have had on that shortlist a range of men and women from different classes, black and white, straight and gay, able and disabled; possibly a ginger?
Parachuting candidates is intrinsically discriminatory. When Lord Mandelson demands a white man is put on a shortlist, he doesn’t at that same time demand a favoured woman and a favoured black candidate are also found seats. Ask yourself how many women SpAds are found safe seats – very few. How many black SpAds are found safe seats? None. Perhaps more insidiously, you find that talented white men are discriminated against too. The party’s sensible efforts to ensure women and minorities get into parliament don’t impinge on the parachuted candidates, they only impede the ambitions of the white men without insider connections and favours.
This has radically changed our politics in recent years. With the parachutes on a ministerial escalator, a broad range of other MPs have done their absolute best to suppress their own individuality; to look like clones of SpAds and to avoid questioning their masters.
And when the various leadership candidates claim they tried hard to change a Prime Minister or a Chancellor’s views on a particular issue, why should we expect them to have had any influence; they were bought and paid for by their patron. They were not in parliament for dissent, they were gifted safe seats to agree and for no other reason. And when a leadership candidate says that a particular vote was the “hardest decision of their career”, the one factor they don’t mention in their decision making process is indeed their career. I hazard this was usually the overriding factor. When push came to shove, whether they advised against or not, they all backed 42-day detention, 90-day detention, post office privatisation and the Iraq War. I have to caveat that Ed Miliband was vehemently, but silently, against the war, though again, he fails to say the degree to which his impending Doncaster selection influenced his silence.
We’re looking for a leader, and leadership isn’t shown by jumping on a band wagon when it’s easy for your career, leadership is shown by those who take a stand when it’s difficult for their career. Leadership was shown by Robin Cook and John Denham over Iraq. When articulate and intelligent Barrister Emily Thornberry was elected in 2005, she was just the sort of person you would have expected to launch into a ministerial career but early on, she decided she couldn’t support 42-day detention and her early career was over. That was leadership.
So I’m nearly 600 words in before I even mention Diane Abbott, who will currently get my first preference, though I reserve the right to shuffle my preferences a few times over the course of this campaign.
Diane represents a body of the party that some might call the heart rather than the head. Rather than standing up and promising to inspire people, at the hustings so far, she has at times simply done it; and I have to admit that surprised me. Her performances on Andrew Neil’s sofa I find fluffy and quite light on politics – but at the hustings there have been flashes of the firebrand she was 20 years ago.
Our choice is between four technocrats (admittedly one has a northern accent) and an Abbott and of them, I know which one would turn David Cameron’s hair grey. He doesn’t know anyone like Diane, there’s no-one in his social circle like Diane and he certainly didn’t go to school with anyone like Diane. Faced with a weekly battle of leaders – with no Liberals to distract – the public would compare two starkly different characters and whether they are black or white, northern or southern, they would realise they’re more like Diane than they are like Cameron. No technocrat – none of the other candidates – has the capacity to throw into relief how different Cameron is from a normal person.
And yet, over two years, Abbott would have the ability to change party rules, practices, procedures and culture to end the parachuting and the control freakery with a speed that none of the others could or would choose to match. Why? Because there is no way that she could command PLP unity without being a plural leader. We got to a position where most of the cabinet were not consulted on policy, very few MPs were consulted on policy and nearly no members at all had a meaningful input. It wasn’t a Labour whip that Diane rebelled against, it was a leader’s whip and all of the other candidates were craven and supine in its shadow.
What Diane could deliver in two years as leader would be a revolution in culture in the party, and in the PLP in particular. She could be the fertiliser that stimulates ideas and debate and real, nurtured pluralism – and a lack of ideas is one of the things that hit us hard in the last parliament. In two years time, we could have another leadership election refreshed and invigorated and the talents who could emerge from the PLP might well overshadow those from whom we choose this summer. Because under Diane, individuality would matter. Under Diane, we would have a leader with no hope of retaining power without engaging every faction, when each of the other candidates would need to build a factional dominance to keep power.
So right now I think we need a shake-up and Diane is the candidate to deliver that. But given the preference voting system we have, my second choice would go to David Miliband on the basis of his intelligence and consistency. Of the other three, my opinions are changing regularly.
This is a long campaign and by the time I get my ballot paper, I honestly can’t say who I think will get any of my preferences. But right now Diane is the only one who will clearly deliver the shake-up the party needs. Diane is the only one who will fertilise the PLP and allow an Obama to bloom.
My advice to the other candidates is simple; if you can offer a better, more credible commitment to take advantage of all the party’s talented members, not just the aides and flunkies who surround you, then you might be my first preference by September. But don’t try to placate me with platitudes about understanding what’s wrong with the party; tell me what you would actually do.