Saturday, 6 June 2009

Labour leadership: don't let us down

I've had a highly enriching and enthusing few weeks as a European parliamentary candidate. It's been tough in many ways but nowhere near as tough as might be supposed given the political context. Actually, the people I've had the great pleasure to meet- both party activists/ supporters and the general public- have been engaging, sympathetic and often even empathetic. I've thoroughly enjoyed myself and would recommend the experience to anyone.

On Thursday, I campaigned in two safe Labour county divisions in Rugby. With three great candidates standing, Jeff Coupe, Maggie O'Rourke and Doug Hodkinson, and given the reaction we were getting on the doorstep- positive in the main- I thought that we had won. We lost. The one thing that had been giving me a nagging doubt during the day was that I was having to do more persuading on the doorstep than normal. Though it was working, we clearly couldn't persuade enough. So very sorry to not see Jeff, Maggie and Doug on Warwickshire County Council. Had it not been for the expenses scandal, they would have been.

Arriving back to my parents' house in Stourbridge on Thursday night I already knew the political maelstrom that was awaiting. I'd been tipped off about James Purnell's decision to resign the afternoon of the election. It was about midnight and The Politics Show was on so I thought I'd catch that. It was a perfect predictive picture for what Friday was going to be like. Dianne Abbott was shrill in her attack on the perfidy of James Purnell and 'Blairites' (as if that was not a legitimate Labour party viewpoint- get over it Diane, it's been 15 years!) and was airing this argument that a new leader would have to instantly call a general election. Michael Portillo was smiling from ear to ear and was merrily going along with the immediate general election argument. Andrew Rawnsley, while sustaining a few blows himself, was gleefully looking on. That is where we began- resignations, hysterical reaction, smirking Tory elation, and journalists like kids in a sweet shop- and that is where the discussion remained throughout Friday.

Of course, the Tories just love this 'there must be a general election' argument. At the moment they are willing to hang that on just about everything: health metrics from Wigan, late delivery of post in Nottingham, Home Office driver found asleep in his Jaguar, England losing to the Netherlands at cricket. OK, I can see their point on the last one but as ever the Tories don't go far enough- nothing short of Jacobin revolution will sort that one out!

Briefly, Douglas Alexander managed to elevate the discussion on the Today programme. He at least acknowledged that there was a discussion going on then made his case in an intelligent and sober way. But soon after, chaos ensued and that is where we remain. So we are left scrambling around for some sanity amidst the madness. Scramble and stumble and grab and crawl. Then suddenly a shaft of light pokes through a crack in the darkness. Steve Richards, arise.

His piece in The Independent this morning is exactly the type of sober analysis that we could have done with yesterday. The choice is not, as Nick Robinson melodramatically put it yesterday, between instant or long, slow death. The choice- and there is a choice- is between the experience of a Brown/Mandelson team to steer the economy and the Labour party towards recovery or an as yet unspecified alternative. To the discredit of the Prime Minister's supporters a leadership election would not precipitate implosion and instant death in the form of a necessary general election. To the discredit of his opponents, there is not a floor on how low Labour can go so any alternative is not a better alternative.

Can there ever have been a leader-in-waiting more unconvinced of his capabilities than Alan Johnson? He's so unconvinced that I'm almost certainly persuaded of his unsuitability. So yes, it can get worse. And, as Steve Richards points out, regicide always lingers.

What is lacking in this whole process is an honest broker. Sorry to harp on about things American but remember how poisonous the contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had become just over a year ago? For a time, it seemed that the Democratic party might consume its own golden opportunity and excrete it into the Potomac River. How were they able to turn back from the brink? Well, there was an independent adjudicator of standing, a political player in his own right. That was the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean. He applied the rules fairly and- contrary to his hot-head image- poured oil on troubled waters while remaining aloof. There were several other senior Democratic party figures who served the same function.

The problem in British politics- and Lord Kinnock's words in support of the Prime Minister have just popped up on twitter as I write this- is that everyone is a player. We need adjudicators and people who are going to uphold the fairness of the process as well. The intersection of personal and party interest and the process is deeply unhealthy. The good thing about process is that it extracts the poison. And it comes to a conclusion. I deeply fear that the situation that the Labour party has got itself into will mean that the poison will remain and it will be internal conflict without end. This is a battle with multiple armies, samurai, allegiances shifting by the minute, and with no rules of engagement. It feels like a never-ending Kurosawa movie.

So the best thing now would be to have the discussion, have it fast, and then resolve it. But who will be the honest broker calling fouls, keeping time, letting the game flow, then blowing the final whistle? No, we are in a game with no time limit, no fouls, and no officials. Who'd want to play in that? Who'd want to watch that other than the sadistic?

Actually, for all the talk about the next general election there is a bigger issue at stake here that I hope all players in this unending game remember. That is that the Labour party is the greatest vehicle for transforming the lives of the powerless and needy seen in the history of Britain. We need it. Those without a stake and without a voice need it. There is a duty to protect it and preserve it so the next generation can have use of it too. We can't allow British politics to descend into a one and two half party system where the cause of building a better and more just Britain is hampered for decades. Our values and our party are intertwined. They can not exist independently. As we resolve the leadership over the next few days and weeks we must never forget these basic facts.

So we need an honest and frank exchange of views. We need to be respectful and not dismiss people because of which wing or faction they come from. We should avoid questioning people's motives. We should respect the process of democratic disagreement.

It seems exceedingly likely to me that the Brown/Mandelson ticket will endure. There will come a point when that is clear and then the rebels must accept that and unite and throw their lot in behind the Labour party securing the best result possible at the next general election.

Where do I stand? I'm in pure listening mode. I don't have a voice. It is purely down to the Parliamentary party. My only concern is that Labour continues to do the right things in office- and they are in the main- and that it remains a competitive force in the immediate and longer term future. That is more in the balance. It depends on there being a respectful conversation with closure over the next few days.

But please remember, Jeff, Doug and Maggie would have made incredible county councillors. They have a wealth of experience in education, local government and health and were dedicated to serving people. How a number of the parliamentary party conducted themselves on expenses meant that they are not able to do so. Now, how the parliamentary party conducts itself on this leadership discussion will determine whether the likes of Jeff, Doug and Maggie are able to use their talents, commitment and experience to serve their communities in the future. Please don't let us down.


  1. Do you lot get a daily injection of delusion?

  2. Anthony,

    if you allow a voice from the continent: regardless how Labour decides on its leadership - if you don't want to end up in opposition for the next 10-20 years you should use the rest of this term to change your electoral system to proportional representation. Of course this would also mean for Labour of not getting an absolute majority anymore, but that's certainly less painful than living with a massive Tory dominance in the years to come.


  3. Anthony, I think the view above in the main is well balanced. Clearly there is "trouble at t'mill" of one sort - but the media does love to serve up bucks fizz when only orange cordial is being passed around.

    In any case, it was a more meaningful election for me this time round as a voter - because I actually felt like I 'knew' something of the personality of one of the candidates - that candidate being you.

    Perhaps the relational aspect of the political process is missing altogether for the community at large. I feel there are massive amounts of cynicism and disinterest about politicians and councilors amongst the [British] general public, who - I think I can say from global business experience - are uniquely adept at concealing their real feelings.

    In any case, I was sorry to miss your recent talk (my wedding anniversary) and wish you well for today's results.