Every election, at its heart, seeks to answer a question beyond the obvious “who is in charge?”. The election for Labour leader is no different. Ronald Reagan famously asked in 1980, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” but defining the terrain of most elections isn’t always stated with such clarity.
We don’t yet know what the defining question of the 2010 leadership election is. To date, we have been undergoing a traditionally self-flagellating analysis of our failures in office (without identifying the cause of those mistakes, let alone the lessons learned). No candidate has yet stepped forward with the defining analysis of this campaign. But it’s early days in what was made, with foresight, a lengthy election.
As that analysis starts to form and then shape the debate, the candidates will have the chance to set out how they fit the bill. Does the future we want as a party require a break with the old, meaning we require the election of a new type of leadership? Do we need a unity (some say lowest common denominator) candidate, or a candidate that is from one faction but able to reach out across the party? Or is this an election where one faction wins out over the others? Is Labour’s future as one of part of a progressive alliance, or we will win again by going it alone?
During the deputy leadership election of 2007, I worked for Jon Cruddas, who was seen as a long-shot backbencher. Although Cruddas’ campaign made a mark by focusing on policies around housing, immigration, rights at work, or party focused ideas such as his pledge to serve only as deputy leader, not as Deputy Prime Minister, a running theme was to define the starting point as, “the party is broken, how do we fix it?” Jon’s answer was that the party required a full-time deputy leader who understood the root causes of the problems the party faced.
Cruddas’ campaign sought to bring everything back to those causes of Labour’s lost millions of votes, membership numbers in a downward spiral and a party organisation increasingly inward looking and closed to new ideas. We wanted a change election; we got one, but only by working hard to set the premise early on. Primarily, this is about the making right political case, wedded to the candidate’s values and beliefs. But it is also about framing your arguments and the case you’re making to shape the debate.
Of course, just by setting the question, you cannot guarantee victory. As we found out in 2007, you may win the argument but still lose the election, especially as other candidates adapt their tactics. But setting the question makes it far more likely you’ll win – and it means that victory comes with a mandate.
In 2010, the candidate who best sets out their plan for the future of the party, how we will win again, and what the next Labour (or Labour-led) government will do, will have a chance of defining this campaign – and give themselves a real shot at winning the election.