I want to apply some Kremlinolgy to John McDonnell’s recent interview with the Eastern Daily Press, when he spoke of Clive Lewis as a future leader.
First and foremost, the very fact that McDonnell is talking about future leaders would normally result in a one way ticket to Siberia, or even worse, a Twitter backlash. This is an indication that such conversations are acceptable to the upper echelons of Labour.
Others Corbynistas have made their views known, such as Diane Abbott saying that Jeremy Corbyn will close the gap in the coming 12 months. Ken Livingstone is hardly in a position of power but he expressed a similar view, in harder terms, saying that Corbyn has a year to turn things around. It is instructive of a wider community who tell me that Jeremy is as honest as the day is long – but not a leader.
What’s interesting about McDonnell’s interview is that Keir Starmer is not mentioned. This may be because Starmer was never really a part of this crowd. Or it may be that the shadow chancellor doesn’t consider him to be a leader. But let me offer another view, that Starmer is respected as a future leader, but that McDonnell knows that in politics one must pick a side and stick to it. Clive is his choice.
So if we ordinary members were to make a choice between Lewis and Starmer, as a future leader, what would our thoughts be between the working class toughness of Clive and the undisputed gravitas of Keir?
The most essential attributes of leaders are that they know what they want, are dogged in pursuit, but pragmatic enough to concede the fight that is lost, in order to take on the fight that can be won. There are a couple of examples of these attributes being displayed by these two politicians.
When Lewis had his Labour conference defence speech changed at the last minute, his anger reportedly resulted in him punching a wall. I’m not suggesting we would want someone who punches walls but it demonstrates the kind of passion we want.
When McDonnell said that Brexit would create huge opportunities for Britain, without explaining what those opportunities were, Keir was apparently “furious”. Unfortunately, when I try to imagine Starmer being furious with McDonnell, the image in my mind involves cups of tea and biscuits.
Labour is a middle class institution, and many members would prefer the image of tea and biscuits to the passion of Lewis, but I’m not so sure. Keir likes to achieve consensus, whereas leaders have consensus forced upon them, and accept the situation in the pragmatic course of achieving their goals.
In the Brexit battle, we also have two examples that set the apart these two people. After months of confusion from Labour, Keir scored a direct hit on the Tories by forcing the government to accept that the referendum was a vote on the principle of Brexit but didn’t give carte blanche on the details of Brexit. Parliament is supreme. Unfortunately Labour then lost a bit of steam.
Lewis is not the shadow Brexit secretary, but did show some fight when he published on LabourList a call for the party to withdraw from the Richmond by-election. Labour failed to listen and confused this call with a wider call for partnering with other parties. We went on to lose our deposit when we could have looked like we were in control. We have since been losing more, such as council by-elections. Lewis was not just right, he also demonstrated political nous.
If you want to be prime minister, then the first thing to do is to get people to see you as leader of the country. From day one people have seen Keir as a future leader. It is because he has an air of dignity about him. He has intellect and gravitas. However, after 18 months in parliament – admittedly not long – it strikes me that Keir has still to complete the switch from being a barrister to a politician.
When I picture who I would like to see as Labour leader, I want the edgy, streetwise political choice for Labour leader. If there is a contest again next year then I’m backing Clive.