Why Labour needs to be as ruthless with failing leaders as the Tories

Why Labour needs to be as ruthless with failing leaders as the Tories

The latest from PB Guest slot writer – Don Brind

It’s Thursday morning in Downing Street: The door to number 10 opens and the manager of the press office is striding down the road with a folder under his arm. I’m there as a BBC political producer and I know him well. I catch him up and with a little bit of persuasion I get my hands of the press release he’s taking to the Press gallery in the House of Commons. Within seconds I’m on my mobile bawling at the news desk: “Thatcher has resigned. Come to us now.”

This was Thursday 22nd November 1990 and the crisis in the Tory party was ending in bitterness and tears. Divisions over Europe and public hostility to the poll tax had given Neil Kinnock and Labour double digit poll leads for the previous 10 months.

    It was testimony to an important fact truth about British politics – the Tory party’s secret weapon is disloyalty. The election of John Major was transformational. The dumping of the leader was followed by the dumping of the poll tax and a more emollient line on Europe.

Major’s stunning victory in the 1992 General Election was, of course, a short-lived triumph. Tory Eurosceptics battling the Maastricht treaty made his life a misery. He responded by staging a leadership election in 1995 in which he beat off a challenge from John Redwood. The Tory ability to dump unsuccessful leaders was demonstrated in 2003 when Iain Duncan Smith, ironically one of Major’s chief tormentors lost a no confidence vote.

By contrast, sticking with unpopular leaders is Labour’s fatal weakness. The tone was set by Harold Wilson in 1969 with his classic response to speculation about his leadership with his classic “I know what’s going on,’ (dramatic pause) ‘I’m going on. and the Labour government’s going on.’ – on, of course, to defeat in May 1970.

Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband faced similar speculation that Labour would do better with a change of leader. Mutterings and manoeuvrings came to nothing and they joined the ranks of defeated Labour leaders.

There are signs that the new leader who will be elected on September 12th won’t be able to count on that instinctive loyalty to the leader.

The current leader Harriet Harman has rejected the idea of a “break clause” under which the party would get a chance to change leaders in 2017. And on the activist website Labour List Conor Pope persuasively exposes the flaws in the idea.

It would, says Pope “encourage ambitious Shadow Cabinet members to work towards the goal of being elected leader, rather than focussing on being an effective opposition. It would also “send a message to the public that Labour is not ready to govern, that the party wants to spend yet more time thinking about itself. “None of these candidates are fit to be leader,” the voters would hear, “but in two years we’ll choose one of them anyway.”

George Eaton New Statesman Political editor reports that MPs are talking about changing party rules to make it easier to remove a failing leader although “others will argue that rather than amending its constitution, the party should simply have the guts to act if necessary”

    The fact is that electing a new leader is a potential game changer. It certainly worked for the Tories with Major in the early 90s. It might have worked for Labour if Jim Callaghan and Gordon Brown had gambled on elections in 1978 and 2007 respectively.

The Tories will fight the 2020 election under a new leader if David Cameron is true to his word. If that leaderproduces a Tory bounce it will provide Labour with the cue to make their own switch.

Alastair Campbell Tony Blair’s former media chief is ready to lead the charge to replace a leader who isn’t cutting it. “If in three years’ time they’re not winning” he told the Times “and it is obvious we are not going to get close to winning an election, I will not bite my tongue and I will encourage others not to bite their tongues.”

Campbell would not be on his own. Two random conversations I had with MPs – one elected in 1997, the other from the Class of 2015 came up with a similar determination. If the leader looks like a loser she or he would have to go.

Don Brind

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