Wednesday, 20 May 2015

WHITHER LABOUR? Part Two - Leadership


THE most important question facing Labour right now is who will lead into the next election? I’m not bothered by what some see as an inordinately long timescale. In my view the longer party members and supporters get to see what the various candidates have to offer, the better. The Fixed Terms Parliament Act means the next election won’t be until May 2020. There’s no possibility of calling a snap election as Harold Wilson did in 1974. My only concern is that while nominations close on June 17th it’s possible to join the party up until August 12th and still vote. I can see the logic of a leadership election encouraging recruitment but it’s a dangerous game to play. There is always the possibility of political opponents organising an ‘infiltration’ campaign in a bid to determine the outcome. I’m not advocating a return to the old days when anyone with less than a year’s membership wasn’t permitted to vote but I don’t see why something along the lines of General Election procedures shouldn’t have been followed. Here, there is an eleven-days gap between close of candidate nominations and registration to vote.


When Tony Blair succeeded John Smith in 1994 he was only the second leader since World War Two to be elected without any previous government experience. Given that the Tories did exactly the same with David Cameron and both he and Blair have enjoyed electoral success, it seems that the ‘clean skin’ approach works in modern politics and that anyone who’s actually got their hands dirty in government suffers from having a record to defend.

I should point out here that Neil Kinnock for Labour and Ian Duncan Smith for the Tories – the first for their respective parties to take over at the top without having been in government – were, shall we say, not exactly conspicuous successes.

Neil Kinnock (top) & Tony Blair. The only people to have been elected as Labour leader without having previously held a position in Government since Ramsay MacDonald.

Gaitskell to Wilson

Until 1983, the Labour leadership was decided by a vote of MPs only. The first post-war election was in 1955 when Clem Attlee, aged 72, resigned as leader after 20 years in the job. That this was a different era can be seen from the fact that Churchill stood down as Prime Minister aged 81 the same year and his successor Anthony Eden was considered ‘youthful’ at 57.

This was perhaps the most bitter of all the party’s leadership contests. Attlee had at one time favoured Nye Bevan, candidate of the left, but his resignation from the Cabinet over the introduction of prescription charges changed that and former Chancellor Hugh Gaitskell emerged as the anointed one. The veteran former Home and Foreign Secretary Herbert Morrison (caretaker leader and an opponent of Attlee’s back in 1935) also stood, thus splitting the right-wing vote but Gaitskell won easily, gaining over twice as many votes as Bevan with Morrison a poor third. Gaitskell’s win was so decisive there was no need for a second ballot.

Gaitskell – the Blair of his era – faced two challenges to his leadership, first from Harold Wilson, then Anthony Greenwood, easily winning both before he died in 1963, pre-deceased by Bevan (his deputy) and with Morrison aged 75 and in the Lords. The then deputy and interim leader George Brown was a hardened drinker though like most things in those days this was hidden from the public as best as possible. Harold Wilson, a Cabinet minister at 31 under Attlee, a former Bevanite and considered to be the left candidate, defeated Brown and James Callaghan to succeed Gaitskell. Wilson went on to become at that point the youngest Prime Minister of the 20th century. It’s an indication of how politics has changed in the past half century that the last three people to win a general election – Major, Blair, and Cameron – have all been younger and in descending order too. Something Labour members might like to consider when casting their ballots for the next leader.

Hugh Gaitskell. The proto-Blair, except he faced far greater difficulties in leading the party.

Harold Wilson. Longest-serving leader since Attlee, four-times election winner and party manager without peer.
Wilson to Foot

Wilson was leader for thirteen years, astutely managing not just faction but the restless egos of many would-be successors. He resigned as both Prime Minister and leader in 1976. That year provided the party with the greatest breadth and depth of talent it ever possessed in a leadership contest. No fewer than six candidates – all Cabinet Ministers - slugged it out – Tony Crosland, Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey from the right, Tony Benn and Michael Foot from the left, with the centrist Callaghan coming out on top, defeating Foot on the third ballot, despite the fact that he was then 64 years old – the oldest to take over as PM since Churchill in 1940.

Interesting to note that it took less than a month from Wilson’s announcement of intent to resign until the third and final ballot took place.

With rising factional tensions threatening to tear the party apart, Callaghan stayed on for 20 months after defeat in 1979, (unthinkable now) picking his time to go just before the new Electoral College system kicked in. When Michael Foot defeated Denis Healey (both men well into their sixties) after John Silkin and Peter Shore had been eliminated it was the last occasion when MPs alone decided who would be leader.
Jim Callaghan. Succeeded Wilson in 1976
Michael Foot. Last leader to be elected by MPs only.

Electoral College

Foot’s election was the green light for the defection of leading figures on the right – the infamous ‘Gang of Four ‘ plus others to form the SDP. On the other wing of the party, Tony Benn challenged Denis Healey for the Deputy Leadership – a contest which has become far more famous than any for the actual leadership itself, and the first to be held under the Electoral College. An enraged Foot called on Benn to challenge him for the leadership or stand aside from confronting Healey.

Many assumed Benn’s thinking was that if elected deputy he could defeat any challengers to succeed Foot when the latter stepped down but faced humiliating defeat with a direct challenge itself.

In the end, Healey scraped home – “by an eyebrow” as the Daily Mirror put it in reference to Healey’s famously hirsute ones. A third candidate – John Silkin – was eliminated in the first round.

Foot’s resignation after the disastrous 1983 election defeat saw Labour elect Neil Kinnock – the first leader since Ramsay MacDonald never to have held ministerial office. Kinnock’s triumph was overwhelming. Eric Heffer and Peter Shore failed to muster 10% between them and Roy Hattersley won just under 20%. Kinnock won all three sections of the college – constituencies, affiliated bodies and MPs – easily, taking over 70% of the total. Hattersley defeated Michael Meacher for deputy (with also-rans Denzil Davies and Gwyneth Dunwoody failing to capture 5% between them), thus creating a leadership team which endured for nine years and two bitter election defeats but which left the Labour Party with 62 more MPs than at the outset.

Benn never had the chance to put his name forward, having lost his seat in the 1983 election but along with Eric Heffer he challenged the Kinnock/Hattersley pairing in 1988. He was humiliated. Kinnock gained 88% of the vote, ending forever any hope Benn had of leading Labour. Hattersley’s victory was less emphatic but he still took two-thirds of the vote with Heffer gaining less than 10%. Standing on his own for the deputy’s position, John Prescott secured nearly a quarter of the vote.
Tony Benn. Always popular with the faithful but distrusted by many of his peers.

When Kinnock stood down in 1992, John Smith was the obvious candidate to succeed and so it transpired with Smith taking 91% of the vote against his sole rival, Bryan Gould. This was the biggest winning margin of any Labour leader ever. Gould also stood for deputy but came last, behind Prescott who improved his position slightly compared to 1988 and Margaret Beckett, Smith’s running mate, who was elected on the first ballot.

Following Smith’s death in 1994, caretaker leader Beckett stood for the top job and this time Prescott set his sights higher too. He came above Beckett but well behind Tony Blair. It’s worth noting that Blair’s 57% was at that point the lowest of any successful leadership election. Prescott defeated Beckett in a straight fight for deputy.

Blair and after 

Blair’s departure in 2007 saw Gordon Brown succeed unopposed while as many as six candidates battled it out for the deputy’s job. One by one Hazel Blears, Peter Hain, Hilary Benn, and Jon Cruddas were eliminated with Harriet Harman eventually squeezing out Alan Johnson by less than 1%.

The 2010 leadership election was perhaps the most dramatic of all as Dianne Abbott, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls all fell by the wayside, leaving the Miliband brothers to fight it out with younger sibling Ed, who had trailed in every round, edging out the much more fancied David by 1.3%.

He wasn’t the first favourite to lose – Healey to Foot and arguably Brown v Wilson produced the same result – but it was a rare thing nonetheless. Even in 1976 with six vastly experienced candidates on offer, Callaghan was always favourite and usually the choice has been an obvious one – Gaitskell, Kinnock, Smith, Blair, Brown.

2015 Leadership contenders

Andy Burnham

Perhaps the ‘Prescott’ candidate. If at first you don’t succeed then try, try again. Also, like John Prescott represents a Northern constituency, attended a comprehensive school and speaks with an accent which could never be described as Islingtonian. Aged 45, a keen football and rugby league fan who would never forget he was an Everton supporter as David Cameron did with Villa. If Labour had won, his first act would have been to repeal the Health and Social Care act.  With a telephone engineer father and a receptionist mother, Burnham is undoubtedly from a working class background. He would be a popular choice for Labour activists on all these grounds. And yet, and yet. The Tories will undoubtedly bring up the Mid-Staffs hospital scandal just as readily and as often as Liam Byrne’s parting note was in this election. Burnham is also open to the charge of being a professional politician, having been involved in full-time political work since his early twenties. That may not be important as most other party leaders are of a similar ilk these days – activists in their teens, researchers in their twenties, elected representatives in their thirties or earlier. It may not be healthy but it’s a fact of modern political life.

Burnham actually had a good record on Mid-Staffs, immediately ordering an independent inquiry upon becoming Health Secretary and a further one after receiving that report. However he rejected a full public inquiry and this wasn’t initiated until the Coalition government came to power in 2010. Mud sticks. If Burnham were elected leader he would have to tackle this issue head on if the scandal (which didn’t happen on his watch) isn’t to be associated with him in the public mind.

Experience counts in Burnham’s favour as a former Cabinet minister, the only survivor from the last leadership election to stand again (unless there’s another quixotic gesture from Dianne Abbott) and still aged just 45. Looking ten years ahead (to the next election and a full parliamentary term) he may be considered ideal in terms of youth and experience.

However, as we have seen, the modern tendency is to pick ‘clean hands’ who can’t be associated with failures of the past such as Mid-Staffs.

Should he be unsuccessful, Burnham has definitely proven that he deserves a place at the top table. Shadow Home Secretary would appear to the likeliest move either to replace Yvette Cooper if she wins the leadership election or moves elsewhere.

Yvette Cooper

Like Burnham, was a Gordon Brown appointee to the Cabinet and represents a Northern seat.  You won’t hear it in her accent but she was actually born in Inverness but moved to Hampshire at an early age. Born into the Labour movement (her father was a union general secretary), like Burnham she was comprehensively educated but also like Burnham she has been in full-time political employment since leaving university. Her rise wasn’t as fast as Burnham’s. They joined the Brown Cabinet on the same day but Cooper was part of the 1997 intake. Burnham was first elected in 2001.

Cooper is of course married to Ed Balls and there was considerable discussion in their household as to which should stand for the leadership in 2010 with Balls’ name eventually going forward. It was always assumed that in the event of a subsequent vacancy, she would challenge. One of her considerations in not running in 2010 was looking after her children – not a problem for those content for Nanny to do so. This time round that’s not a concern. Her husband losing his seat leaves him plenty of time to be the parent round the house.

And that’s where Cooper faces a problem. She and Balls were found to have ‘flipped’ their second home designation on more than one occasion during the great parliamentary expenses scandal and were ordered to make a repayment. Even though this was a tiny amount compared to most (less than £1,500), perception is all – even though no duck ponds were involved!

Could the Tories bring this up? Would the allegations last for five years as Leader of the Opposition? The answers I think are probably no and no again. There is far too much history on their own side of the House.

Cooper has held the particularly (for a Labour spokesperson) onerous brief of Shadow Home Secretary for almost the entire period between 2010-2015 and has generally been regarded as a success. She would also be Labour’s first woman leader and at 46 is in the same age bracket as Burnham. She would have to keep her place at the top table if unsuccessful with Shadow Chancellor or Shadow Foreign Secretary the only two positions commensurate with her status. That’s assuming (I think correctly) that she wouldn’t want to remain in her present position.

Burnham and Cooper are the undoubted front-runners but two others (at the time of writing, though this is unlikely to change- you need to get the phone lines installed early in a leadership contest) have indicated their intent to stand.

Mary Creagh

Despite over forty years membership of the Labour Party, I have to confess that when I heard that Mary Creagh had entered the race, I didn’t know much about her. I couldn’t even have told you which constituency she represented. I don’t know if I’m typical in that respect but if I am she faces not so much an uphill battle as a mountain to climb to succeed. On the other hand I wonder just how well known David Cameron was to party activists when running for Tory leader in 2005.

A quick search shows she hasn’t been as long in parliament as Burnham or Cooper, first elected in 2005. She’s slightly older, at 47, but not so much as to make a difference in age considerations when looking for a leader. She has impeccable working class credentials (parents a car worker and a primary teacher) and had a comprehensive education.

Unlike other candidates she has significant experience in local government, serving as a Councillor for seven years and indeed Council Leader for four, but in Islington. Whether that qualifies her as a “champagne socialist” I’ll leave for others to judge. Personally, I doubt it. Like Burnham and Cooper she made her way to a top university by dint of hard work and intelligence – proof that the comprehensive system works. Like Burnham and Cooper she represents a Northern seat (but then again so did Ed Miliband).

Creagh is a strong pro-European with first hand experience of working in Brussels (then again so had Nick Clegg) and is a former chair of the Labour Movement for Europe. This will go down well with the troops, as will her local government record and the fact that she is a hard-working and respected constituency MP.

Several factors militate against her. She is thought to be a Blairite which is – these days anyway – not a popular stance amongst a large section of the membership, she has no government experience, she represents a marginal constituency which as leader she will inevitably have far less time to nurture (Burnham & Cooper both have five-figure majorities) but the one undoubted Tory area of attack will be her unfortunate choice of comparison when raising the serious issue of the lack of female train drivers (less than 5%) in the UK.  She criticised the children’s’ series ‘Thomas The Tank Engine’ for its poor portrayal of female characters.

While she’s undoubtedly right that the series could do with an update to reflect modern society, attacking one of the most popular set of children’s’ books and TV series ever was and is a gift to the Daily Mail and one can imagine the fun the Tory benches would have every time an issue of transport was up for discussion in the Commons.

Perhaps Daily Mail & Sun articles shouldn’t be taken into consideration when choosing a leader but in this case the potential for ridicule is obvious.

Defeat may bring a promotion inside the Shadow Cabinet but a new position is less obviously available than for Burnham and Cooper.

Liz Kendall

Elected much later than the others, in 2010, bucking the national trend and did so again, increasing her majority in 2015. She was almost immediately fast-tracked into a position as a Shadow minister but although she had the right to attend, she wasn’t a full member of the Shadow Cabinet itself. A grammar school girl, Kendall worked on health matters such as the Ambulance Network and the Maternity Alliance before joining think tanks then working for Labour ministers so the allegation of never having had a ‘proper’ job is one which can’t be levelled at her.

Whatever else, Kendall obviously doesn’t lack confidence in putting her name forward against much better known figures and with only five years in parliament behind her. The last person to do that was David Cameron and it didn’t do him any harm. And at coming up 44 she falls into the same age bracket as the other contenders. Her public speeches identify her firmly as a Blairite, perhaps even the 'new' Blair.

Defeat would at least bring a full Shadow Cabinet position. As her current position is with responsibility for care and older people a move to Shadow Health Secretary with a brief to develop a policy to integrate health and care seems most likely.

Also- (not quite) Rans
Dan Jarvis - ruled himself out. He has very good reasons for not standing. He is a widower with small children and he is young enough to challenge in the future should Labour lose in 2020. Politicians usually resign to 'spend more time with the family' as a euphemism for jumping before being pushed. Jarvis may be the first in history not to stand in the first place and with it being genuine too.

But would he have been the right person anyway? He ticks a lot of boxes. Son of what could best be described as lower middle class Labour activists, comprehensive educated, non-Oxbridge, and without a hint of professional politician to his name. Joined the army and rose to Major in the Parachute Regiment so it would have been impossible for the Tories to land a punch (metaphorically, it would be most unwise to attempt to do so physically) on him by trying to label a former para as 'weak' on defence - a traditionally vulnerable area since the departure from the scene of another Major - Denis Healey.

There is a strong possibility he could be in pole position come 2020. Should Labour lose, very few these days have the stomach for two full terms as Leader of the Opposition as Neil Kinnock had and Hugh Gaitskell would have had. And no one certainly wants to be the Hague or the IDS of the Labour Party. 

Regardless of his domestic circumstances his decision not to run may well be a wise one.

Tristram Hunt - let's be clear. There is one reason and one reason only why Tristram Hunt isn't a candidate for leader. He cannot get the support of 35 MPs (the minimum needed to nominate) to support him. An excellent communicator, as his TV series' show, a highly readable academic writer and I assume a fine lecturer too. But Hunt would have carried a lot of baggage with him. Breaking a picket line to deliver a lecture on (ironically) ‘Marx, Engels and the makings of Marxism' just one. Openly speculating that he might opt for a private education for his children (he had one himself, but that's irrelevant. As pointed out earlier, no child decides which school they attend) when Shadow Education Minister is another.

Surprisingly, given his serious demeanour, he was a member of the famous Cambridge Footlights at the same time as Mitchell & Webb. He may go on to resemble another alumni from that troupe, Jonathan Miller, who gave up comedy for more serious matters.

Hunt has also got into trouble for what many may think are the right reasons. He questioned the validity of non-qualified nuns as teachers - a self-evident truism you might think. But the power of religion even in the 21st century forced him to apologise. Similarly, when he suggested private schools should lose charitable status if they refused to enter into partnership with local state ones, he was pilloried as a class warrior instead of someone actually offering wealthy institutions the opportunity to continue to be treated as similar to Oxfam or War on Want.

He is also prepared to think ahead, proposing reductions or freezes on child benefit in later years in order to make full-time pre-schooling available and to tailor unemployment benefits to time in work and earnings. Both may be right or wrong but they should be considered. The second would actually bring the UK into line with countries such as Germany.

Such opinions won't be universally popular but it's good to know someone is starting to think ahead and that may be the best role for Hunt to have.

Chuka Ummuna – announced he would stand and withdrew three days later citing media intrusion. This may come back to haunt him in future with much said about heat and kitchens etc. but it’s a sad indictment of modern politics that this kind of thing goes on, with reporters allegedly door stepping the 102-year-old grandmother of his girlfriend.  Leader of the Opposition is one of the most gruelling posts in British politics and the media will seize on any chance for ridicule – Miliband’s bacon sandwich, Hague’s water slide in a baseball cap – so it’s best all round if he gets out now. Questions do arise though over his judgement in standing in the first place. Even if it ultimately affects his chances of obtaining the top job, it shouldn't prevent the urbane Umunna - who despite appearances would have been the only non-Oxbridge candidate in the race (always assuming Jarvis had no intention of standing) - from being around for a long time to come. If Kendall is the Blair de nos jours then Umunna might be said to be Mandelson with a human face.

Irrespective of all that, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Ummuna become Shadow Chancellor within 48 hours after the leadership result is announced, regardless of who wins.

Keir Starmer - an indication of the despair felt by many that his name was even considered for leader little more than a week after being elected as an MP for the first time. To his credit, Starmer immediately recognised as much and firmly stamped on any move to 'draft' him. In any case this would have been the gift to end all gifts to the party's enemies. Every time an horrendous crime was committed by someone not prosecuted for a totally unrelated offence, the blame would have been laid directly (if totally unfairly) at Starmer's door as a former Director of Public Prosecution.

What Labour really needs is a leader with the best abilities of its most successful to date. Someone with the relaxed, collegiate approach to government of Attlee, the party management skills of Wilson and the popular appeal (until Iraq at least) of Blair.

Do any of the above fit that bill?

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