In this article, Toby S. James argues that there are five central tasks that the next Labour Leader must achieve in order to be successful: build up momentum in the opinion polls, develop a reputation for competence on the economy, manage the party, win the battle of ideas, and bend the rules of the game.
Selecting a replacement for Ed Miliband has turned into an existential moment for the Labour Party, and become one of the most important crossroads in modern British politics. After Blairite candidates lined up to claim that the party needed to listen to ‘aspiration’ in the immediate aftermath of the general election result, the contest has taken twists and turns via the withdrawal of leading candidates because of the ‘pressure and scrutiny’ that came with being a candidate, Corbynmania and voter registration ‘purges’. Legal challenges and perhaps even MP defections may follow.
At the heart of the battle is the question of what the party is looking for. Is it someone who can reunite the party with the Labour values and policies which defined it in the twentieth century but were jettisoned during the Blair New Labour years? Or is it someone who can defeat Cameron (May, Osborne or Boris – whoever the Tory will be) in 2020? Both aims are not necessarily incompatible. Corbyn supporters argue that by returning to Labour’s roots, office will come. Critics from the right of the party argue that a candidate with a broad appeal is needed, Corbynomics is ‘Alice in Wonderland politics,’ and policies are needed that befit the challenges of the twenty-first and not twentieth century.
Principle or power? A leader led by their conscience or the necessary political guile and cunning to oust the Tories? It is a dilemma that has traumatised the Labour party since it was formed in 1900.
Assuming that Labour want power there are five core tasks the new leader must achieve. Each of these, Jim Buller and I argue in a new book on British Labour Leaders, are a key test for any future leader. A successful leader will need to:
- Develop a winning electoral strategy. In short, the leader needs to build up momentum in the opinion polls and eventually secure enough votes and seats to win office. Sometimes ‘winning’ might just be making electoral progress, rather than winning outright. Neil Kinnock, for example was granted two stabs at success such was the extent of defeat in 1983. This is a self-evidently important test. But there are critical dilemmas about to get there. Labour currently faces a real challenge winning back Scotland but also Conservative seats in Southern England. It is not clear how both can be simultaneously won. It also faces an electorate much less enthused with politics, and less likely to vote, than the Corbynites and anti-Corbynites picking the leader. Strategies to increase voter engagement at the ballot box are therefore crucial for a leader’s success.
- Develop a reputation for competence on the economy. The left right division does not always make sense outside the Westminster bubble or people without a strong party affiliation. Rather, it is about who would do the best job on the key issue of the day, which is usually the economy. Labour have been on the back foot since 2008. The Conservatives skilfully pushed the austerity agenda to keep firm in the public’s mind that it was a Labour government, even after years of ending ‘boom and bust’, under which the deficit rose. They have made balanced budgets the premise for economic competency. This debate will need to be redefined if a leader is to be successful.
- Manage their party. As part of his own contribution to our book, Tony Blair argues that leaders must reach out ‘above their party.’ This might help develop a winning electoral strategy. But it is the party that elects the leader and the parliamentary party should be sufficiently content with them to not be a hotbed of potential leadership bids. Failure to achieve this may lead to the leader looking ‘weak’ and ‘incompetent’, may undermine their chances of achieving the other goals, and may leave them booted from office early on.
- Winning the battle of ideas. A leader who can change and win the debate of the day will have their authority enhanced. These debates include the ‘big’ questions such as the overall role of government in society and the general direction of policy: a return to the welfare state or the end of it? Accepting globalisation or resisting it? But it also includes the debate on specific policy areas. Winning the battle of ideas may strengthen their electoral strategy and boost confidence in them within the parliamentary party.
- Bending the rules of the game. British politics is a game played out within rules which advantage some, and disadvantage others. An astute leader will therefore keep electoral systems, boundaries, voter registration laws that will give them the best chance of power, and change those that don’t. In opposition, the immediate challenge for Labour is to respond and derail Conservative reforms that might give them electoral advantage. David Cameron has already unveiled more Conservative peers in the Lords, voter registration and boundary reform that will benefit him, and the growth of the SNP makes the Scottish question paramount. Making promises to reform the constitution, if elected as leader, might also help to establish future coalition agreements such as the never activated Blair-Ashdown pact.
The character of a political leader is often thought to be important in determining their success. But it is clear that being a skilful political strategist should be at the forefront of the job description.
Note: This article was originally published on The Huffington Post.
Toby S. James is a Senior Lecturer in British and Comparative Politics at the University of East Anglia. He is the co-convenor of the Political Studies Association research group on Political Leadership, is the co-editor of British Labour Leaders and British Conservative Leaders.