Charles Clarke outlines Labour’s immediate leadership challenges after defeat in the 2015 general election.
Harriet Harman has six months to set Labour on the right course. The leadership election, which will doubtless fixate the media and which she will manage, is only one of the challenges she faces.
In 2010 for 4 key months Labour was entirely internally focused and allowed the Conservatives to get away scot free with establishing across the whole population a narrative of Labour economic failure which, though untrue, was never to be successfully challenged and was the core basis of their election victory last Thursday.
And that internal focus, unsurprising though it was as a new leader was being elected, meant that Labour never made any serious effort to discuss openly and clearly why Labour lost in 2010, how it should then oppose during the new Parliament, and what its electoral strategy for success in 2015 would be. Those big, important but complicated questions were all subsumed within the parallel over-simplified process of selecting a new leader.
Moreover the leadership election process itself was serious flawed, permitting as it did the leaderships of some large trade unions to impose their own political agendas on the ballot process of their members, for example by including propaganda for particular candidates, but not others, in their Soviet-style ballot mailings.
Harriet needs to take her second chance of leadership of the Labour Party, which will last from last Friday until a new Leader is elected, to do a much better job of starting to help Labour to recover from last Thursday’s disastrous result, which owed quite a lot to those early failures five years ago. Her agenda is pretty straightforward and has six elements.
First she needs to ensure that Labour engages fully from the outset with the agenda which the new Tory government will be setting from the moment of appointment of a new Cabinet, through its first Queens Speech on May 27th, the anticipated emergency Budget and then the early second reading debates on key Bills. Labour must not be a marginal observer as these things happen. It must make the weather rather than passively observing. This will not be at all easy, but Labour cannot stand back until its new Leader is appointed before making its case and communicating it vigorously to the British people. Another Tory free run would be disastrous for Labour. Harriet will need to appoint spokespeople able to do that.
Second she needs to ensure that Labour has a process, possibly for a few months, where open discussion is encouraged and listened to both within the Party and more widely, about the reasons for our defeat and what we have to do now. She must not allow the agenda for this essential conversation to be set only by the media groupthink which was so damaging for Labour in the General Election campaign, or to be defined only through the spectrum of the leadership choices which will be on offer.
Third, Harriet has to ensure that the election for the Labour leadership is properly conducted, whatever timetable is chosen. After the constitutional reforms proposed by Ed Miliband and approved in March 2014, it is absolutely essential that the leadership election this time is properly conducted, and it is Harriet’s responsibility to make sure that internal democracy happens properly, whatever the difficulties.
Fourth, she needs to start right now with developing the strategy by which Labour can build a platform in Scotland whereby Labour can begin its comeback there. A strong performance in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election is essential and that will not be achieved on a ‘steady as you go’ basis. Labour needs to consider its own transformed relationship with the Scottish electorate, develop its own policy programme, and get candidates who reflect this new approach. Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale are of course already focused on this but they and their team need full support from the national party.
My own view is that there is a good case for creating an entirely new and independent Scottish Labour Party, constitutionally controlled entirely from Scotland, but even if that approach is not thought to be wise, Scotland needs urgent priority, starting now and not when a new national leader is elected, because the 2016 election is so central.
Fifth, the same job, less dramatic though no less urgent, is also necessary in relation to the Welsh Assembly elections in 2016.
And finally she has to ensure that Labour finds a candidate for the London Mayoral election who inspires the electorate in London with a vision of Labour’s future which compels attention and support.
This is a very tough agenda for Harriet and she deserves the support of the whole party in addressing it. How Labour tackles these hard questions will offer an important guide to how serious it is about winning its way back to power in the 2020 General Election.
Charles Clarke is a Visiting Professor at the University of East Anglia and the co-Editor of British Labour Leaders, with Toby James, which is due to be published in September.