Wednesday, 2 June 2010

The Next Labour Leader

The Coalition is wobbling after its first high profile resignation and the Tory backbenches are revolting. They are also having a go at PM Cameron. The first stage of brutal cuts are about to swing into action, with the overly gleeful Chancellor of the Exchequer only just at the beginning of his attempt to recast the country in his, I mean his leader’s image.

Needless to say with so much going on, the question I keep getting asked is who the next leader of the Labour Party should be!

I know that this sounds like a drift into partisanship, but it is actually a crucial question. We are not in 1997 again – following Labour’s landslide victory in that election the Tories collapsed, providing no effective opposition to the Government and leaving themselves isolated in the wilderness for 13 years. It is imperative that the Labour Party does not make this mistake – both for the party and for the country as a whole, which needs Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition to be a strong and challenging force in these difficult times.

So who am I supporting for the leadership (a question that I know keeps the respective candidates awake at night, fretting with anxiety about whether they will receive my backing!)? Well, the answer is that I don’t know at this stage in time. There are some very good candidates in the race, but really I am waiting to be excited, to be swept off my feet, to become giddy as a teenager in the first throws of infatuation.

Ok, I am maybe looking for a little bit too much – this is still a political contest after all! However, there is an important logic to my jesting. One of the key reasons why Labour is no longer the party of Government in the UK is because we became tired, worn out and boring. It was the same situation as we encountered in Scotland in 2007 – we were not innovators or visionaries, we were managers, steering the country without trying to take it down new paths.

In 1997 the country bubbled with the possibilities of the brave new world under Tony Blair, the promise of a new progressive realignment of the UK tapping into the desire of the electorate for excitement and for change. After the grey uninspiring latter years of Tory rule, Tony Blair and the New Labour project tore through the British political scene, casting aside the cobwebs of boredom and complacency. We witnessed the enthusiasm of President Obama’s victory in the US, born of centuries of racial prejudice and discrimination, but it is important to remember that the reaction in 1997, although not arising from the same base, was of an unprecedented (and unBritish!) level.

It is also easy to forget, due to the decline of Tony’s popularity and the contentious decisions such as Iraq, that the first term of the Government was one of the most radical in British history, rewriting the fabric of the country. Devolution started the process of giving power to the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which they had long been denied. The minimum wage, tax credits, New Start and other economic policies started to provide the opportunities for all which had not previously existed. Civil partnerships and other social legislation changed how the country viewed its citizens, starting to demonstrate that everyone had a role to play, that everyone was welcomed and celebrated regardless of sexuality, gender, disability or race.

These were exciting and vibrant times when the Labour Party was a campaigning force for change. Of course not everyone agreed with the direction that the Government was taking, but they certainly knew that there was a direction, that the country was changing. This was lost amidst the infighting in the Party, amidst the tiredness of justifying Iraq, amidst the realisation that the oft-stated belief that boom and bust was gone forever, that growth would be never ending, was not possible to guarantee in an interconnected, globalised world.

Now, as we sit in opposition to a coalition Government united in its ideological desire to scale back the role of the state, it is crucial that the next Leader of the Labour Party has ideas, has a passion to change the world that can inspire the membership and indeed the country.

The candidates talk well about their opposition to inequality, their desire for fairness and all the other issues like that – but as someone recently commented to me, who is it that is actually for inequality and unfairness! What is needed is practical, inspiring ways to change the country which enable everyone to be an active citizen.

The party needs to move beyond the stale, pointless New/Old dichotomy, which serves only to put off the electorate who view it as self-indulgent at a time of economic hardship. Whilst I’m sure others would be happy to place me in one of the camps, I personally consider myself to be Labour, part of a broad church of activists united by belief in working together even if how we conceptualise that covers a wonderfully broad spectrum.

In some ways I am glad that I currently don’t have a clear favourite in my head, as it leaves me free to be convinced by the debate and competition itself. Here is a chance for a group of people committed to the future of the party to demonstrate to us, the activists, why they have the ideas that will take us forward. Electoral defeat has been painful and carries the risk of much of our work being undone, but it also offers the opportunity for a fresh start. This is not a call to rush blindly away from our record in Government, falling over each other in a bid to distance ourselves from all that occurred, but it is a chance to take stock and to find the spark, the passion, the reason that we believe we need to be in Government.

Government is hard, it involves making decisions which are unpopular and challenging. But it is also the only way in which we can change the country. No matter how scunnered people feel with politics and democracy, it remains the essential means by which decisions are made, the key means in which society is influenced and changed. Sitting in Opposition is an important role, but it does not bring change. Instead we sit as bystanders, challenging but also watching as a centre-right Government takes the country down a path of their choosing.

Labour needs to reengage – party democracy (which let’s face it has never been all that democratic) must be adapted in the light of a changing level of engagement and membership. Despite the upsurge in new members since the election overall membership of our party has fallen drastically over the years, the number of activists plummeting and leaving campaigns in many areas struggling to function. Members must believe that they are part of something worthwhile – meetings must move beyond mindless bureaucracy becoming vibrant opportunities for discussion and debate. Selection processes must be opened up to encourage greater participation of all elements of society serving as Labour representatives – we have much to be proud of in our record of electing minorities to represent us, however, we can and should always be striving to do more.

The new Leader must demonstrate that they are committed to developing the Labour Party into a modern, democratic body, enthusiastically welcoming everyone into its folds and working as an active force for change in local communities. Across the country people should be aware that the Labour Party works for them, represents them, is owned by them, serving as an irreplaceable element of their communities and country. The Labour Party in Scotland and Wales should be devolved, allowing it to work as a local body responding to the specific challenges and requirements of those contexts. This is not to create a situation of needless conflict with the UK wide Party – we are committed to the integrity of the UK and should be proud of our role as a major representative force in all of its constituent parts (other than the case of Northern Ireland of course, a topic which deserves its own blog). However, we introduced devolution because we recognised the difference in policy context for Scotland and Wales – our internal structure should therefore match that recognition.

My hope for the leadership contest is that it is a vigorous but collegiate affair, which allows the candidates to engage in open debate and discussion. Gordon Brown was hamstrung from the very beginning by his unopposed election, it is vital that the next Leader does not suffer from this fate. The different wings of the party must be allowed to contribute – I personally think it would be a disappointment if either Dianne Abbott or John McDonnell did not make it onto the ballot – as recognition of the fact that we can and should contain a broad range of opinions and approaches. Recent years saw a growth in the belief that debate was bad – we must counter this by demonstrating that we can debate and disagree, yet still work together united by our belief in the shared goals we have.

That is my hope. I have touched less on policy as I don’t think this should be the primary goal of the contest – we are not looking for a President who will decide in advance what we are doing but a Leader who will work with and for the party. We need an inspiring Leader, one who believes in politics as the best way to make the world a different place and who can share this belief with us. We need a Leader who we can follow, who can bring the party back to life and who can become the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.

I am waiting to be swept off my feet. Candidates, the floor is yours – go make me giddy.