In Monty Python’s Life of Brian there is a famous scene in which Graham Chapman, pursued by a mob convinced it has found the new Messiah, turns on his tormentors and beseeches them: “You don’t need a Messiah. You don’t need anyone. You’ve got to work it out for yourselves”.
“Yes”, they reply in unison, “we’ve got to work it out for ourselves…tell us more!”
The desperation with which the Labour party is begging senior MPs to furnish it with “a proper leadership debate” has become Pythonesque. “Bestow a debate on us”, we cry. “Empower us.”
We really have got to grow up. A genuinely inclusive examination of the successes, failures and future direction of the party needs to be owned and driven by the entire Labour movement, not sub-contracted to 5 or 6 members of the Parliamentary Labour party. The wailing and gnashing of teeth that has accompanied the nomination process is not so much a reflection on the lack of diversity amongst the candidates, as indicative of the chronic lack of self-confidence and insularity of the party itself.
To listen to people discussing the nominations threshold, you would have thought it had been designed by Joseph Stalin operating as sub-contractor to PW Botha. The requirement for a potential leader to secure the support of just 33 of their parliamentary colleagues is not an affront to democracy, but a sensible threshold for anyone seeking to represent themselves as a future prime minister. The process is in danger of degenerating from a mature leadership selection into a session of group therapy.
The election of a national political leader, with potential responsibility for life and death in decisions of war and national security, control of a multi-billion pound economy and management of our vital national services cannot just be reconfigured to fit the Party’s post-election narrative.
Yes, it will obviously have a major role in shaping Labour’s post-electoral direction. But anyone hoping a leadership contest will act as a proxy forum for renewal is heading for disappointment. Just ask David Cameron.
The Conservative leadership election was supposed to have been the catalyst for revitalisation of their party, cleansing the brand and completing the Tory realignment with mainstream public opinion.
In truth, while they certainly uncovered a charismatic and able leader, Cameron’s election marked the high-water mark of the Tory modernisation process. For all the hugging of hoodies and embracing of Polly Toynbee, it was the failure properly to drive through and embed a genuine process of modernisation that ultimately cost him an overall majority.
Even with Labour’s disastrous national campaign, the legacy of the extreme elements of Thatcherism was still a significant motivating factor for many Labour voters. Cameron never did have his Clause 4 moment, and he paid a price for that.
The truth is that leadership elections make for lousy politics. The need to play for position and work the angles never generates the battle of ideas that any party needs to embark on a serious process of renewal. The Messiah is always too busy prepping for Paxman.
There is of course a clear subtext to the current debate-about-a-debate, framed in the left’s angst about the absence of a serious contender to ‘broaden the discourse’: the right, once again, is attempting to ring-fence the leadership. Well, if that’s the case, standing a candidate would help. Whatever concerns we may have over the narrowness of the political spectrum represented by the Eds, Andy and Dave, at least they’ve had the guts to throw their hats in the ring. Diane’s challenge, despite her obvious protestations, is tokenistic. And if we don’t buy a ticket we can hardly complain about not winning the lottery.
‘Where’s Cruddas?’ goes the cry, totally missing the point of his decision to absent himself from the contest. As Jon wrote, the leadership of our party is “not a bauble to aspire to. It is a duty to fulfil”. Similarly, the task of re-building our Party cannot be outsourced. It’s a process that must be driven, not merely observed, by us all.
If it’s debates that we want, why not open up the policy forum, so that it becomes a serious production line for new ideas and policies? If it’s renewal, why not democratise the party from top to bottom, opening up the positions of party chair and even shadow cabinet elections to the membership? If we want to be more inclusive, why not review the working of party conference and democratise our Parliamentary selection processes.
Of course, the election of a new leader has the potential to provide a stimulus for this process. But it cannot be a replacement for it. Above all, on both wings of the party, we have to break free from the leadership cult that remains buried so deep in our psyche.
The right must understand that a more pluralistic party does not of itself mean a more undisciplined or unmanageable party. The left must not fall into the trap of embracing diversity of thinking at the expense of constructing a mature prospectus for government.
But none of us should be fooled into thinking that that by attending a husting and then ticking a box for Diane Abbott, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, Ed Milliband or David Milliband we have even scratched the surface of preparing our party for its journey back to power.