The Next Leadership Election: The Case for Taking A Longer Road

It may seem odd — distasteful even — that during a general Election Campaign that there is so much talk of the next Labour Leadership Election and the tactics that will accompany it. Surely, if Labour suffer heavy losses Corbyn will go in the conventional way. Or, maybe the Corbynites will ensure he tries to hold on until September when the McDonnell Amendment about the PLP nomination threshold can be forced through?

Rumours are flying everywhere, especially amongst those connected with the left. One recent rumour (traced on multiple occasions from the left) has Corbyn resigning before the General Election. I suspect this is why a clear denial was issued by Corbyn’s office — he will fight on. Corbyn himself, of course, was less than clear on the subject adding to the confusion and supporting all manner of conspiracy theories. I suspect this reflects the panic of those who have supported Corbyn and who can see a Tory landslide doing no good for their careers.

However, it seems likely to me that — should Labour suffer the kind of defeat that is being predicted — normal conditions will prevail. Corbyn will go quickly. Another discussion emanating from those near Corbyn suggest that the camp know that he couldn’t carry on, and that a crushing defeat would be the wrong backdrop for the McDonnell amendment. This thinking is accompanied by the notion that the Corbynite left think there will be a quick contest between Cooper and Starmer and that the left will support Starmer. They will support Starmer in the usual way, expecting to have little leverage with him over the coming years. If this seem slightly ridiculous it is very much the traditional way in which the left have approached leadership elections in the past. Other sensible constitutional watchers simply point out that there many be no need for the McDonnell amendment as the percentage of the PLD needed with a much smaller PLP would be quite a small number. If Labour’s defeat is heavy I expect a quick resignation. But then what?

Quick contests have not served us well in recent years. Maybe there is an alternative to consider. Under our constitution Tom Watson becomes interim leader and he can hold that post for up to eighteen months. Perhaps, we should consider using this time wisely?

Should Watson become interim leader his first task will be to put together a strong front bench. We have many experienced politicians sitting things out at the moment and, arguably, have a number of senior Shadow Cabinet Ministers who are out of their depth. The task of the interim Leader will be to put together the most talented team possible, regardless of whether they are from the left or the right of the Party. For example, though not in my natural political camp, Caroline Flint has always been a very effective front bench spokesperson and a very good communicator on the media. I thought Flint gave the best pre election conference speech in 2014. As Shadow Energy Minister she had secured a good manifesto deal, made a direct and no nonsense speech — one which was mercifully brief. Those with Ministerial experience like Flint still have a real role to play. Or consider MPs such as Lillian Greenwood, one of those initially promoted by Corbyn who worked really hard to make an impact with transport policy before resigning in frustration and the seeming incompetence of the Leadership Team. Greenwood is of the centre left, a former trade union official at UNISON and somebody who is generally respected in the East Midlands.

You will have your own views about who should be in such a team the point is this, our first priority will be to develop a strong team, provide the stability for them to both oppose as well as to develop those partnerships and alliances that will provide the policy solutions for the future.

Over, say, a twelve month period it will be clearer who the frontrunners might be. They can be given the chance to front major campaigns and policy initiatives and, perhaps, also the opportunity to tackle Prime Minister’s Question Time. We might also see a strong front bench tackling the media in an important way. An appearance on Marr or the Sunday Politics is very different from the more personal outing on Question Time. Such a process could take ten to twelve months and still allow time for a proper internal campaign, but one conducted in a very different context. If Watson himself is a candidate (and I’m not sure he would be) we will be able to see him operate within a wider and more talented team that we have been used to over the last six months or so.

Some would still prefer a quick election and it may well be the case that we need a settled leadership before Brexit begins to really go off the rails. But I think there would still time for this more considered approach to be effective.

A Tory landslide would place Labour is a far worse position than when Foot was leader. Back then Labour still and the heartlands of Scotland and Wales to provide the foundations of a rebuild project.

As I write it is almost impossible to be sure of the political landscape that we will wake to on June 9th. A new political world may require a very different approach to leadership and parliamentary tactics. Who knows who would shine in such a world? There is no guarantee that the old tricks and tools will be good enough for the job. Why not give ourselves the space to think and plan effectively?

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