So we lost a General Election. Rather badly. I start with this uncomfortable observation as it seems already to have been brushed aside by many in the party delirious with the fever of electing a new Leader. The thinking of too many seems to be: “The previous Leader was weak or wrong on too many issues for the British electorate. All we need to do is find the right spearhead and everything will be fine”.
Yet this is the most dangerous and delusional thought process of all. For it not only fails to address the fundamental malaise at the heart of the party it blatantly ignores it. Changing the leader, to any leader, will make no difference in our electoral fortunes. It is the party that is bust not the leadership and until that it is fixed sending even a brilliant Leader into the election five years hence is only going to produce one result. Defeat.
Even Nelson could not have won at Trafalgar if his flagship had been made of meringue and at present that is what the party has become: A sugary, anodyne, toothless, party of clerks masquerading as politicians.
For too long now individual party members have been almost an encumbrance to the leadership. The end result is there for all to see. A once great party with massive grass roots support producing a broad spectrum of ideas and policy from both right and left has been neutered, homogenised, and parcelled up to be left on a shelf and dusted off when leaflets are there to be delivered but in the meantime existing to be alternately patronised and ignored. The Labour Party is a radical reforming party or it is nothing. At present it is nothing.
This simply cannot be changed from top down. It would take an individual of immense moral courage and ability to become the new leader and to conclude: “You know what? This system, the system that got me to the top of the greasy pole is fundamentally flawed and is in need radical overhaul.” It simply isn’t going to happen.
As such we will go on selecting MPs who are replicants, with life skills that stretch all the way back to working for a current MP and whose major selection qualification needs to be a personal relationship with someone already ensconced in Westminster.
If our current selection system isn’t any less corrupt than the 18th century totten boroughs, where the Duke of Newcastle selected MPs on his personal preference, then I would like someone from the NEC to defend it to me.
Our ever shrinking gene pool of MPs, the visible articulation of our party, is only partly the problem, though clearly it’s most obvious. A more fundamental criticism is that the commonplace member is now an irrelevance. Conference, once the life blood of the party, long ago dissolved into a networking event with no real significance for ordinary members let alone voters. But even branch and constituency committees, the lowest building blocks in our party structure are now largely pointless. The dreadful Local Campaign Forums brought in with so much fanfare, have in fact left the party at this grass roots level impotent and irrelevant. The irony is that the Militant of the early 1980s could not have come up with a better method of emasculating the vast majority of ordinary supporters and putting power into the hands of a few “process” obsessed entryists as our own much vaunted LCFs. We have managed in less than a generation to take the politics out of a political party.
Both these things need urgent reform, and I have faith in Jon Cruddas and his independent review. But I fear that the party, bruised and battered after one of its biggest ever defeats will turn its waning efforts to the more media friendly subject of who leads rather than the infinitely more difficult question of what it is they are leading. And if that is the case then there will be many like me who expect exactly the same result in five years’ time.
John Knight is the Culture and Sport portfolio holder on Nottinghamshire County Council and former Leader of Ashfield District Council