Don’t take tips from me on leadership elections
Don’t read this if you are looking for tips on who to back for the new leader of the Scottish or British Labour Party.
Since I cast my first leadership vote for Eric Heffer in 1983, I have backed losers in every leadership election with the exception of John Smith and Ed Miliband. And no, I didn’t vote for Jim Murphy either – although I think he did a great job in impossible circumstances.
If I could go back and cast all those votes again would I do it differently?
In some cases, yes, but I did what I thought best at the time. I was under no illusion that my chosen candidate would win – just that they best reflected my political perspective. That’s one reason why I will not support any candidate who claims to occupy the centre ground of politics.
I didn’t join the Labour Party to occupy the centre ground but to stand proudly on the left. I regard myself as a realist, a pragmatist and a moderniser and I appreciate the need to appeal to a broad spectrum of support well beyond the traditional Labour heartland but that has to be from a left perspective.
I am heartbroken that as a result of the election we have been robbed of a Labour Queen’s Speech which would have outlined a bold democratic socialist programme of legislation matching that of Attlee in 1945 under a leader who would I believe have equalled Attlee’s legacy of radical change. But that wasn’t to be thanks in large part to the deceitful prospectus of the SNP that they could save us from a Tory government and make a Labour one more progressive. Instead they destroyed the chance of a Labour government both by their seductive wooing of Scotland and their impact on voting in England.
There are two main areas of debate in considering Labour leadership contests – the political choice before us and the franchise on which it is decided. It is all too easy to oversimplify both. The argument goes, ‘We need to garner support from the middle ground so we should simply change all our policies to appeal to people in the centre’. And on franchise, ‘The only democratic way to choose a leader is one person one vote so we should do away with the trade union link’.
On policy we have got to get our priorities right. Bevan said ‘the language of priorities is the religion of socialism’. We have got to make sure we are standing on priorities for today and not from some time in the past. Yes we must have a programme that appeals widely, but it can still include one or two principled positions that people are yet to be convinced of.
We have been too ready to fall into the trap of apologising for past Labour governments at Westminster and Holyrood. We should admit we made mistakes and could have done more, but we have nothing to apologise for in the record of Labour achievements in government.
We should proudly proclaim that people are always better off with Labour. And we shouldn’t try to pretend there are no political choices to be made when picking a new leader. From the time of the Bevanites v Gaitskellites; Harold Wilson and George Brown; Gordon Brown and Tony Blair; even Ed and David Miliband – we have faced not just personality clashes but political choices. We are going to need the deductive powers of Sherlock to identify the political differences between the likely leadership candidates this time.
Coupled with the need to reclaim the centre ground is an assertion that we have to look to a ‘new generation’ for leadership. This may be true but it is not inevitable – it isn’t a given. Just look at Hilary Clinton aiming for the Presidency at 68 years of age (consistent as ever, I supported her over Obama in 2008). Why is it assumed we have to ignore and bypass substantial figures like Harriet Harman and Hillary Benn just because they aren’t from ‘the next generation’?
When it comes to the franchise for electing a leader it should be remembered that this has changed several times over the years. When I wrote that 1983 was the first time I voted for a leader, it was also the first time any Labour Party member was able to vote for a leader. When Michael Foot defeated Dennis Healey in 1980 it was only Labour MPs who had a vote.
The proportion of votes held by each part of the electoral college has also changed over time. Now we have agreed to a one person one vote system for the next UK leader and we are in the process of deciding whether to go there for the new Scottish leader too.
But again it is an over simplification to ridicule the electoral college system as undemocratic and mock the multiple votes that some people were able to cast as a result. If you have a system of voting based on an electoral college then it is perfectly reasonable that each individual member of any constituent part of the college should have a say on how that part of the college casts its share of the vote. There is also a strong case for MPs, members and affiliates all having a say in choosing the leader of a party and making it more than the sum of the parts.
On balance it is probably necessary to move to one person one vote for all leadership elections but we shouldn’t pretend there are no arguments to the contrary or start beating the breast and proclaiming how sorry we are that we ever used any other system.
There have even been suggestions that we should open up the leadership to a kind of national primary with almost anyone who wants to having a say. No doubt this will appeal to some who have a superficial naive grasp of what is involved, but can you imagine nationalists, UKIP supporters and even Tories posing as Labour supporters and muscling in on who we are landed with as leader.
I must admit I am in serious danger of tarnishing my record of backing losers if Kezia Dugdale emerges as the new Scottish Leader this summer, as I fully plan to support her. She is very brave to put herself forward for the task at this difficult time. I just hope everyone who backs her does so for the best of reasons and not as a cynical ploy to win time until after next year’s Holyrood elections.
I may have had an interesting record of voting for past leaders but I have always seen it as my duty to give 100% support to whoever was eventually chosen. That’s probably the best bit of advice I could give. But for the moment, if you are thinking of a visit to William Hill’s, I would just repeat my first piece of advice – don’t take tips from me on who to back in the leadership elections.