This is our truth, tell us yours
The departure of Ed Miliband from the leadership of the Labour Party means the party has to have a leadership election.
Labour’s leadership selection process seems, to me, to be the worst possible process to use, until you consider the alternatives.
Just as at a general election, the leadership candidates are meant to appeal to an audience whose objectives and desires are at least in part unknown to them. Part of the skillset, of a leader, is supposed to be their ability to work out what others want, and to address it; the result is a constant effort to not isolate or reject a section of the selectorate, for fear they will choose anyone but you.
I’ve made my own views clear, here, about what Labour should be doing. In terms of selecting a leader, however, it needs to think about good recruitment practice. Instead of asking the selectorate to go into this process raw, unprepared and unsure of the criteria to select on, Labour should issue a job description. What is the party leader’s job? What is the person specification required to perform the duties?
As with so much in Labour’s recent past, the problems started with Tony Blair. Once he’d won the leadership, his peculiar mix of messianic vision and narcissistic personality would brook no opposing poles of power within New Labour. Where once Labour had had general secretaries who ran the machine, and NEC chairs who could unite the unions and the CLPs, New Labour hollowed out all the alternative sources of power, and bent every party structure to the will of the leader. The model of leadership adopted was autocratic, and inimical to the traditions of a party that was as much a coalition as it was campaigning force.
Part of that hollowing out of the Labour Party was a succession of General Secretaries who were temporary in terms of their holding of the office,and unfit for purpose in terms of their skills. Matt Carter was cerebral, thoughtful and easily out-manouvered in office politics. Peter Watt was a direct contrast; shallow, manipulative and forever tainted by the Davd Abrahams fake donations scandal. Ray Collins was a classic trade union fixer brought in to fix the financial mess left by Watt, but unimaginative,and Iain McNicol has presided over the decline of the party machinery to the point where they got just about every aspect of their work wrong at the 2015 election. Ed Miliband may have failed, but the research carried out by the party on his behalf let him down, and the strategy was hopelessly defensive.
So, does Labour need a leader to assume complete command, depleting all party structures of any semblance of power and influence, or a leader to invigorate and regenerate it? Should the leader be an autocrat, or a facilitator? In leadership studies there’s a classic problem which I think of as the Goose Green problem. The battle at Goose Green during the Falklands War ended up with H Jones being remembered for his heroic charges at the defenders which got him shot; it’s at least arguable that he was a better hero than he was leader. Wikipedia summarizes the debate nicely; Major Chris Keeble, who took over command of 2 Para when Jones was killed, was awarded the DSO for his actions at Goose Green. Keeble’s leadership at Goose Green was one of the key factors which lead to the British victory, in that his flexible style of command and the autonomy he afforded to his company commanders was much more successful than the rigid control and adherence to plan exercised by Jones.
You can’t decide which style of leadership you need before you decide how you are going to approach a problem. How is Labour going to approach the problem of the end of the United Kingdom? Answer that question, and you may have some of the job description and person specification for Labour’s next leader.
Here’s a concrete example. Simon Henig will have a huge role to play in how Labour responds to the Northern Powerhouse proposals beloved of George Osborne. One of his principal qualifications for the role is that he is not leader of Newcastle or Sunderland, and that he can represent the other authorities in the North East in a way that stops the combined authority descending into a farcical private war between the egotistical and unlikeable leaders of the two large city councils. He plays his part by eschewing the media posturings of Nick Forbes and Paul Watson, and carries genuine weight because of his intelligence and ability to build coalitions. He is far more Ed Miliband than the Blair lite role that Nick Forbes aspires to, but also has deep roots in the Labour Party that make it easy for him to manage his relationships with the traditional wings of the party. Aided and abetted by allies in Northumberland he has the chance to counterpose an alternative model to the city obsessions of London based policy wonks, but to do that he has to lead in a different way to Forbes or Watson.
So what is the Labour Party’s goal? The tyranny of a minority of swing voters implicit in the strategies of the 2015 election campaign, or a broad based coalition of shared principles and objectives? Decide that, and the selectorate might be prepared for their task of choosing the best leader for the job.