THOSE with the power to vote in the next leader of the Labour Party should not under-estimate the scale of their responsibility.
Not only are they charged with finding a figurehead who can actually lead a party still in shellshock following its election defeat, but they must undertake to elect a leader who can meet Labour’s side of the bargain in constitutional government. This is no time for navel-gazing contemplation, or blind complacency.
Without an effectively-led Opposition, David Cameron’s Conservative administration will continue unchecked. This is not good for democracy. It also leads to the possibility that without a strong Opposition, on tricky matters – such as Europe – the Tories will turn on themselves and rip each other to shreds. In what is effectively a two-party system, in England at least, this is not productive. Both major parties fragmented and flailing? There is no chance of making progress on any important matter of policy.
Today is the day when the Labour leadership nominations close. The names still in the frame – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn – are setting out their stalls. There is no obvious clear front-runner, no big Tony Blair figure muscling in with a big idea.
Burnham and Cooper are tainted by their association with previous Labour leaderships. Meanwhile, Corbyn and Kendall, each in their own way, are associated with too narrow a field of vision. The name of David Miliband has inevitably been conjured up, like a genie in a bottle. However, the hope with which some Labourites yearn for the prince across the water – he’s in New York as the head of an international charity – tells its own story. It is one which smacks more than slightly of desperation. He is not even a sitting MP and John Prescott said on Thursday night that he should stay there.
Let us trust that matters become clearer when the candidates appear in the televised hustings. This will take place in front of a demanding audience which includes people who voted against Labour or who did not vote at all.
This is an important point. One of the failings of Ed Miliband’s leadership was that it became obsessed with only what was happening within the party. Too late did it realise that such introspection alienated not only those with wavering allegiance who could have been seduced into support, but those who called themselves traditional Labour voters. How many of us, especially in the North of England, faced a crisis of faith? Instinctive supporters of Labour, but unable to sanction the leadership of Ed “metropolitan elite” Miliband with a cross in the ballot box?
There is a collective sense that this contest is about more than electing a new leader of a political party. It is a pivotal moment in British politics and its repercussions go much further than an internal beauty contest.
As well as party members, and those with trades union affiliation, anyone who pays £3 to register as a Labour supporter will be able to vote in the leadership ballot. Lord Adonis, the former Transport Secretary, has even called for the contest to become a full open primary, allowing anyone to have a vote. “We need to speak to the public, not just to ourselves,” he reiterates. This won’t happen, but he makes a point which Labour party old-timers keep repeating. This is about much more than the party itself.
As Lord Mandelson says, Labour must have a “full and frank debate” about the failings of the past five years, rooting out the “false unity” and that word again - “complacency” – which characterised the Miliband years. I hope that these words repeat like a mantra.
There was nothing more frustrating for a Labour supporter than the brick wall of solidarity which went up around Ed Miliband. I could see he wasn’t working. You could see he wasn’t working. Talk to any Labour MP though and they would insist – publicly at least - that he was. Witnessing this misplaced loyalty was like watching a bunch of lemmings take a run up to a cliff. And we all know what happened next. It took the hopes, dreams and aspirations of anyone who considered voting Labour over the edge with it.
That’s a key word – aspiration. New Labour had it. Labour under Miliband somehow managed to lose it. His mistake was to see everything in terms of a class battle. His vision for Britain was, in effect, a dreary one of struggle and plight. What he failed to realise was that voters want something to believe in. Labour is an idealistic party. A good Labour leader must be able to present a vision. They must tell us exactly what they plan to do with the economy, with education, with immigration, with the National Health Service and with the benefits system. They must stop insisting that they wish to “reconnect” with the public and let their proposals for how they would run things do the connecting for them.
As yet, none of the candidates have come up with such a blueprint. They do still have time – the ballot does not close until September. But this is not a time for complacency. Labour’s very future will depend on the outcome.