Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Labour Leadership Competition – Who NOT to nominate

Having the widest possible field from which to choose from. It's been the mantra of the nominations step within the Labour leadership contest. Truth be told, as many have cynically put it, one must have more of a choice than 2 Ed's and 2 Miliband's, as it was just a few weeks back. Since then, three more candidates, Dianne Abbot, John McDonnell and Andy Burnham, joined the competition. Yet, out of these three, only Burnham, it would seemed, less than 12 hours before the deadline, to be able to acquire these, while, the latest news show both him and Diane Abbott getting on the ballot paper after John McDonnell's rather late withdrawal. And this fact precisely has led to an ample debate in the blogosphere on how Labour should ensure that they have the 'widest possible field' from which to choose their leader.

Blogs and articles belonging to members and supporters of all political parties, from Labour to the nationalists, argued ardently that either Abbott or McDonnell needed to have a chance, that there needed to be a leftist candidate in the books, making the whole competition more interesting. Even more, some of the candidates, like David Miliband, have declared that they would be willing to 'donate' their own personal vote to a contra-candidate to ensure they will make it past nominations stage. How nice of them! Or how patronising!!! No wonder that, upon getting his vote Abbott was actually quoted as criticising his 'insincere' support (D'oh!). In the same way, Harriet Harman, acting leader of the opposition, endorsed Dianne Abbott as a follow up to her comment last week that the Shadow Cabinet should have an equal number of men and women, even admitting that she essentially did not want to see a 'men-only' competition.

But going back to the whole 'widening the field' agenda, one must wonder why is everyone so keen to do this. True, political theory will tell you that in order to ensure a semblance of representation, the opinions of all the groups within it should be heard. But, in the same line of argument, we must all see that in many proportional systems there are parties that get that few votes to barely scrape a couple of seats in parliament or make is past the electoral threshold. (Which is why representative democracy has this sin of only representing the biggest groups/parties in society.) And that is relevant to our case, as it seem to be rather obvious that the left-wing group of labour MPs just isn't big enough, struggling to get at least one of their candidates past the nominations stage (versus it would seem now, four representing New Labour in its different forms). Moreover, the need for a leftist candidate is further skewed by the organisation of the voting process, which also encompasses the unions with a third of the vote (in what Chris would call the natural link between a social-democratic (?) party and the unions).

Yet, the problem remains: should we have a leftist candidate as all the papers and bloggers keep arguing, even as they are can barely get the nomination? Is representation worth sacrificing? I'd say it is, for two major reasons. Firstly, the MPs, though only a third of the final vote, are the people elected by the general public and through this they have a certain degree of legitimacy and link with the wished of the electorate, and thus the fact that very few of them are inclined to the left of the party should probably tell them something about the wishes of the public. Secondly, it seems like most of the argument for having a left-wing candidate stems from a desire for 'political circus', in having different discourses contend in this debate (And other political competitions, across Europe, have shown us that the further apart ideologically the candidates the more interesting the debate becomes - especially when you can provide an extreme-right or socialist voice in the debate).

But going beyond the entertainment and debate value, I genuinely believe that these three/four candidates will have to learn to construct different policies, different images in order to convince people differentiate them from their counter-candidates and to vote for them, not to rally against a leftist candidate, going against the Third way promoted 13 years ago by Tony Blair. Ed Balls is having a go at it, though his success is debatable, in breaking with the UK's commitment under the 'freedom of movement' legislation of the EU, in arguing too many Eastern Europeans have come to the UK. The others must learn to do the same, as the Post-New Labour era needs reform from within its very core, not from the outside. Having seen other examples, like the German SPD's return in 2007 to its leftist core, it is extremely predictable that Labour will move back to the left, especially as the governing coalition seems to have outflanked the centre both left and right. But this needn't happen by scrapping the old leadership, but by reform within it. Lastly, there is another argument: a leftist candidate may realign all or just some of the others to the right of the party's position. This isn't bad, but given the natural evolution of the politics of Labour, it may be a bit problematic if one of the candidates would still hold to his teeth to New Labour and the centre-left, in promoting 'disillusions' of grandeur and a copy of the Liberal democrat programme (which some analysts argue won't come out alive of this coalition anyway).



  1. While the MPs are elected by the public, they are not totally representative of that public, and they are even less representative of the internal factions of the Labour Party, whose membership is much to the left of the PLP. That section of the membership that wishes to see a return to Old Labour desires, and indeed deserves, to have a candidate who can express their concerns. Representation of the general public is also one thing, while the individual that wins this contest may one day be Prime Minister, he or she will be, first and foremost, leader of the Labour Party, and de facto leader of the wider Labour movement.

  2. Hmm, as a Labour party member Im not sure I agree with your comment Chris about the membership being to the left of the PLP, even though I consider myself to be from that portion of the party!

    If you look at our delegates, elected officials and most people who are active they tend to be centrish or rightish - and that's reflected in recent internal elections where I have two words to say - Harriet Harman.

  3. Really? I recall Harriet Harman running on a platform, that, while not especially socialist, was fairly progressive, and certainly left-of-centre, albeit in a feminist 'New Left' kind of way.

  4. Its also not something drawn out by the kind of resolutions that have been passing at conference as of late.