“Marvin … What do we do now?” Hopi Sen’s advice for the next leader

The passage of time being what it is, some Uncut readers won’t be familiar with “The Candidate”, a 1972 film featuring Robert Redford as an insurgent Senate candidate struggling to retain his idealistic purity while trying to beat a popular Republican incumbent.

The film was written by Jeremy Larner, a speechwriter for Gene McCarthy in the 1968 Election campaign.  McCarthy didn’t win the Presidency, but Larner did win an Oscar.

It’s a great film, not least because of the perfomance of Peter Boyle, playing political consultant Marvin Lucas. Once you’ve seen Lucas, all gleaming pate, glasses, beard and calculated cynicism, it’s hard not to see the West Wing’s Toby Ziegler as a tribute act.

Why do I raise a forty year old American film?

Because the challenges that face the next leader of the Labour party mirror those facing the fictional Bill McKay. At the end of the film, McKay turns to the man who has reshaped and remoulded him and asks “Marvin, What do we do now?”  

On the 25th of September, when the last vote has been wrung out of the campaign, when the challenge to inspire the party alone has ended, one of the teams will need a great answer to that question. 

It could be Spencer, Stewart, Polly, or Jim, Douglas, Blair or Kate, or Alex or another Jim who get asked. Their answer might decide the fate of the Labour party for years.

The questions the new Labour Leader will be confronted with won’t be much different to the ones they’ve faced over the campaign, but the attention paid to their answers will be.

These first months can kill when you’re a new opposition leader, unknown to most of the public and with years to run before an election, as Kinnock, Hague and IDS all discovered. Each was defined early in their leadership. None quite recovered.

So in an attempt to be helpful, here are five things to do, and two disasters to avoid for the next leader.

1. Have an immediate strategy on the economy and deficits

The new leader will have to have an answer pretty quickly to this question. It’s likely to be the first serious question out of the mouths of Boulton, Marr and co, while our opponents will waste no time in trying to define our new leader as unable to offer a credible answer on the economy and deficits.

In less than a month of becoming leader (20th October, to be exact) George Osborne will be presenting a Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).  Our response to that will define our political strategy for years. Our new Leader’s answer here has to be crisp and compelling, much more so than any of the candidates has offered in the Leadership campaign.

It doesn’t have to be complete – no-one is expecting a shadow CSR and opposition offers a little freedom –but waffle or generalities in response to savage cuts won’t do either. The leader has to clearly set a strategic direction for the party – and that means making choices fast.

Will we accept deficit reduction via spending reductions? If so, what priorities should we adopt on cuts. If not, which taxes will we increase? If neither, how do we deal with a charge of living in a fantasy world?

There will be huge pressure to oppose all cuts – in part because it makes economic sense to keep stimulating the economy in the short term.

At the same time, stressing the importance of growth is not going to satisfy many of those sympathetic to the coalition – especially as the government will wheel out example after example of “waste”.

 2. Know where you want your best people – and what will keep them happy

At about the same time Osborne is setting out the CSR, elections to the Shadow Cabinet will be taking place. There is a danger that Labour looks inward at a crucial moment.

So while the new Leader won’t choose the Shadow Cabinet – at least not all of them- they’ll have to give a quiet lead  to ensure we make best use of at least three wounded leadership candidates, bring on new talent (especially women) while retaining enough heavy hitters to provide institutional strength.  They’ll need to promote some campaign loyalists, but also recognise talent outside their campaigns. So think carefully about what to do with the likes of Sadiq Khan, John Healey, Pat McFadden and Yvette Cooper.

Who-ever is Shadow Chancellor will have to have both authority and protection from a leader who knows that choking off spending commitments is a vital but unpopular job in Opposition.

On top of the Treasury, the backbone of the team is likely to be Justice, Home, DWP, Defence, Health, Schools and BIS, where government tensions are likely to emerge quickly. Pay close attention to junior frontbench jobs there. That’s where you want to put your future cabinet ministers.

There will be huge loyalty to the new leader at first. But no leader candidate will have been the first choice of a clear majority of the PLP. Indeed, the leader could well be elected with the backing less than half of the PLP. I don’t think that’s happened before*

So if things stutter, the whispers will begin sooner than imagined. Keeping the party happy through a strong and happy Shadow cabinet and front bench will be essential for any Leader, and that has to start straight away.

3. Know how you’ll handle AV and constitutional reform

There are essentially three options for the Leader. 1) Support AV wholeheartedly as a manifesto commitment, 2) support AV vaguely, but object to date, wording, structure and peripheral issues, or 3) Go for broke and let loose those who loathe AV to do their worst.

The first choice is consistent, but will annoy the party on the ground, many of whom want to see the Lib Dems humiliated and don’t care that much for AV in the first place.

The last choice is attractive, but has the danger of leaving the Leader looking weak and not in control of the party. The new leader can’t be a Pontius Pilate.

So it is likely to be box number two. How to look principled, while quietly kicking away elements that help the Lib Dems secure a winning referendum? Belief in fairness is the key. Our new electoral system can’t be created by fixes, backroom deals or dodgy wordings

 4. Have a strategy for dividing the Lib Dems

This will involve kicking them, obviously.

But how? Do we attack them all as puppets and sell outs, focus our attention on Clegg, try to expose fault-lines between Tories and Lib-Dems, or judge that the best way to destroy them will be to treat them as an irrelevance- a limp appendage to an ideological Tory government?

Some will argue that we need to keep lines of communication open with the Lib Dems. I’m sure that’s true, though Mr Clegg seems to have forgotten the insults Mr Cameron threw his way, so we shouldn’t worry about some occasional harsh words.

What we need is an argument that will appeal to Lib Dems voters and activists, while leaving Lib Dem MPs with Social Liberal tendencies awkwardly twisting in the wind.

One way of doing this would be to focus on the pacifist, non-intereventionist elements of liberalism. Personally, I hate that idea, but it is strategically credible. Another would be to co-opt the agenda of localism, liberty and community, stressing that little platoons are wonderful, but need rations too.

Whatever it is, there needs to be a positive narrative to go along with the brutal kicking we’ll be handing out to Clegg to make us feel better about being in opposition.

 5. Prepare for an argument on Poverty, Jobs, Benefits and Pensions

Since the election, the political focus has been sharply on Public services. From Health to Schools to councils, the impact of cuts has generated stories and outrage. 

But the budget, the coalition’s economic strategy and tensions inside the government mean that welfare, jobs and poverty will almost certainly explode as issues over the coming months.  The budget has left traps in the path of the neediest in society, while ministers speak loudly about their ambition to end poverty.

So whether it is reduced Housing Benefit that will hurt young families, or the gradual lowering of benefit payments to long term Jobseekers, we will begin to see the human casualties of a tough line on “scroungers” and “welfare mums”. 

This could be happening in an economy struggling to create private sector jobs, training fewer young people in colleges and Universities, while the elderly get increased pensions but wait longer to claim them.

Yet tolerance for the unemployed amongst those who are working and struggling to make ends meet will be low. Put bluntly – we’re likely to see increases in poverty, while jobs are hard to come by and those who are finding it tough need re-assurance that their taxes will stay low.

Getting on the right side of this argument early will be important down the road. The answer might be a focus on job creation and innovation – which itself leads to further choices.

So that’s some things to do.

What about things not to do?

First. Don’t let your man (or woman) look like a pillock. The transition from minister to instantly recognisable national figure is a big one. For now, the challenge is to make the Leader seem a credible Prime Minister, So whatever you do, don’t let the leader fall over, wear a stupid hat, ride a log flume, do some dad dancing or stare awkwardly into space while being lambasted by a random passer by.  Once their profile is established they can get away with being an idiot every now and again, Not when they’re being introduced to the country.

So ration media appearances carefully – we don’t want to feel we know all too much about them after just a month. Save the embarrassing interviews about football and pop culture  until later, when they’ll get lost in a faster moving news cycle. Keep the leader as a big weapon for the big occasions- which also gives the defeated a chance to look good too. There’s a political justification for this too – this is a serious time for serious people. Not a time for frolicking around on beaches or on reality TV shows. Even ones hosted by Simon Cowell.

Second, don’t ever ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever forget that the job is to win the next election. Without that, every speech and every eighteen hour day is an expense of spirit in a waste of votes.  To win we have to persuade people who voted for our opponents, or for no-one, to support us.

We’ve spent the last four years trying to motivate our core, to get us over thirty per cent. We need to be above forty. The difference is one in every ten voters. After four months of talking to members, make sure that the Labour Party is thinking about that one in ten every single day. 

Oh, and lastly? Don’t listen to the witterings of armchair bloggers.

They’re just annoying blowhards who aren’t good enough to do what you’re doing.

*Kinnock would have beaten Hattersley in the PLP if it had come down to transfers.

 Hopi Sen worked for the Labour Party for most of the last decade, but doesn’t now.

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15 Responses to ““Marvin … What do we do now?” Hopi Sen’s advice for the next leader”

  1. Quietzapple says:

    The problem Kinnock, Hague and Michael Howard faced (IDS didn’t fight and lose a General Election) was that they faced a governing party i/c an economy which could be presented as successful.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Hopi Sen and Labour Uncut, Mili. Mili said: Hopi Sen offers some interesting advice for the next Labour leader. Lib Dems, pay attention to points 3 and 4. http://tinyurl.com/29lll44 […]

  3. Paul says:


    Nicely written, but entirely wrong at No.1.

    The new leader shouldn’t be making clear how we cut the deficit. S/he won’t be portrayed as a sensible Keynesian ‘deficit dove’, but as a would-be ‘deficit hawk’ who’s just rubbish at being a hawk.

    S/he needs to adopt a clear post-Keynesian line and challenge the very concept that the deficit needs to be reduced over a specific timeframe, and start to develop the popular image of the govt as run by ‘deficit terrorists’ using false arguments to exploit the poor. That then links to your no.5.

    It’s about making clear how we are different, and how that difference will challenge the govt’s exploitation. It’s not about being a paler, more reasonable version of the Tories.

    Nor do we necessarily need to portray the new leader as the PM in waiting. Let’s do away with the idea that there’s an automatic succession from one job to the other. They’re different jobs requiring different skills and aptitudes. Sell that idea hard to people who understand wht jobs are, and it will sell well as a part of Labour’s ‘new politics’. There’s plenty of time for Labour to choose it’s PM-in-waiting, and while the new leader might want to go for that job, there should be a fresh interview. That’s the advantage of fixed parliaments. So don’t worry about some of the ‘pillock’ aspects. The new leader can afford to be rough and ready and unstatemanlike, because s/he’ not in a statemanslike role.

  4. paul barker says:

    Loved your idea for the AV campaign, oppose it while pretending to support it, that should deal with any criticisms about honesty, spin etc.
    LibDems- as one of your lot pointed out, we are “under-factionalised” ie united. Plus, the ones who most object to the Coalition are also often rabid Labour haters.
    An extra question for the Dear Leader; what to do about the the £10 million + debts. Interest rates will be going up at some point & theres an Election to fight.

  5. Hopi Sen says:


    Well, My real point that at least what you outline is a consistent strategy- though I happen to think it would be a bad one- but thats a longer and more complicated argumentI I believe the new leader will have less than a month to define Labour’s economic policy. That’s a very tight time frame, and the pressure will be immense- it’ll be the first big call they make, and they can’t flub it.

    BTW, I think each of the candidates would be rather upset to discover on becoming Leader of Opposition that they were not the next PM in waiting. It’s pretty much why they’re running. I don’t hold out much hope for an adviser who suggests that they get ready to make way in a couple of years time, after doing the hard work!

  6. Paul says:

    Hopi @12.40pm I think I get what you mean from the slightly odd speed typing above. Yes, I concede that your point was about the need for getting a consistent message in place rather than what that message might be, although the way in which you couched that main point is reflective of your on-the-hawkish side stance on the deficit.

    My point is that none of the leader candidates are really looking at all at what political economy ‘vision’ will help them distnguish themselves from the Tory-lite days of New Labour, as well as from the Coalition, whom we should portray as living in a’ fantasy world’ in which the gold standard still exists.

    Quite aside from being the correct way forward, a post-Keynesian/Modern Monetary Theory way forward does just that, and an exploration of this as Labour’s new economic model DURING the electoral process is what is needed so that the new leader already has a message when s/he takes over.

    On the distinction between leader of the party and PM status, I think your answer reflects a lot of what’s wrong with the party’s culture/structure. Why would I care, and why should I care, whether the new leader is ‘upset’ that he’s not an automatic choice for the job (hopefully) after. And what have advisers got to do with what the party may decide is the best way of recruiting for the two different jobs?

  7. Hopi Sen says:

    You should care because the motivation of the Leader of the party is important. They drive the policy process, set our political strategy, and are the face of the party. If their first pre-occupation is to ensure they win some pre-election primary, they will be less focused on trying to ensure the Labour party wins the next election.

    I’m afraid that however you structured it, deposing the Leader for a potential PM would be regarded in the same light of the IDS/Howard or Campbell/Clegg changes- and admission of failure. Why build that into our plans for the future?

    As for the advisers, there’s no reason why you should care. I just liked the idea of someone telling their boss that the best thing they could do would be to bugger off when the election came!

  8. Paul says:

    I’m leader of the Labour group in my area. I’m not sure I needed the ‘motivation’ of assurance that I’s become leader when I campaigned to get elected as councillor. I think my comrades in my local party might have taken umbrage if i’d demanded such an assurance.

    On the IDS/Howard switch and whether it would be seen like that, yes it would if it was a deposition. Portray it as two different jobs, and a new way of Labour doing its politics so that public get the best person for each different job, and you might get a different portrayal, and a sense of excitement in the country at large that 18months or so out from an election there was a real debate about who should be their PM.

  9. Paul barker – It’s not Lib Dems who matter, it’s Lib Dem voters. Plenty of whom hate the coalition and so have already switched over to Labour. Of the others, some hate the coalition but still hate Labour more, it’s true. But that’s because an awful lot of them were former Labour voters. If we asked them in 1988 what they thought of David Owen, I’m pretty sure our ears would have burnt. The new leader needs to find a way to get those voters to forget why they hated Labour. Failing that, to push them out to the Greens.

    If the new leader can get the Lib Dems to 11-12%, dealing with them shouldn’t be much trouble. Some will see which way the wind is blowing and get more friendly to Labour, those likely to lose to Labour can be targetted vote by vote and the troublemakers can be tacitly encouraged to plot against Clegg.

    Dealing with them only gets really difficult if they manage to climb back up towards 20%.

  10. CS Clark says:

    Good stuff. Interesting how one’s writing changes when it switches venues.

    Couple of points:

    ‘1. Have an immediate strategy on the economy and deficits’

    An immediate answer maybe, instead of a full strategy. But I think there’s something important to emphasise – that the reducing the deficit part of this has to be the first step, that they need to have a vision of what sort of economy and economic society we need once the immediate crisis has passed. So where you write:

    ‘Will we accept deficit reduction via spending reductions? If so, what priorities should we adopt on cuts. If not, which taxes will we increase? If neither, how do we deal with a charge of living in a fantasy world?’

    I think these questions must be answered with a purpose, so every answer includes ‘… so that we can do this in the future’.

    ‘There are essentially three options for the Leader.’

    Isn’t there a fourth – go for broke in trying to make it a referendum with multiple options including STV?

    I’d also say that I’m coming round to the view that any strategy to do with the Lib Dem leadership (because really it’s about them, not Lib Dem members or people who voted Lib Dem) should be way, way down the list. For a while at least.

  11. Yes, STV is a fourth option. But not an overwhelmingly popular one amongst the membership.

    Yes, there are many who favour STV. Yes, this does include some of those we lost since 2001 but have since come back. Yes, by emphatically pursuing this we’d win their support back.

    But there are plenty who don’t favour it. North-Eastern, Greater Manchester and Liverpool and Scottish MPs can be relied upon to oppose it almost unanimously, because it means unemployment for around half of them. So will plenty of local councillors and very many activists.

    I understand it’s traditional for a new leader to start out by facing down his party on a particular issue. I don’t think it’s a sensible tradition, but it exists. I just don’t think the issue should be one that hurts the Labour Party so deeply for so little benefit.

    If we want to show we believe in reform, how about pushing AV (not STV – the Scottish experience shows its not very proportional) for local council elections? Clegg doesn’t favour it, so we’d outflank him on that basis. It preserves a clear constituency link. In a lot of areas it would benefit Labour as we’d pick up Green and Lib Dem votes and whilst in some inner-city areas it’d let the Tories and Lib Dems gang up on us, that would at least mean they’d provide a real opposition there, which would help to prevent descents into cronyism. Sure, Newham and Barking vote Labour, but is it really healthy for them to have no opposition representatives to call them to account?

  12. CS Clark says:

    Sorry ECB, I didn’t mean go all out for STV as much as go all out for a multiple-choice, preference registering referendum and then letting people campaign for whatever option they wanted. Although I take your point that there are many people who would regard it as too great a risk.

  13. Multiple choices on the referendum would be feasible, except that you’d have the problem of none of them receiving a clear preference. A 36-34-34 vote for STV over the other two options would rather make a mockery out of it…

    You could do it by AV, of course, but having an AV election to decide whether to go to AV or not just seems silly to me…

    Although it is the best option, I don’t think the political optics are there for a multiple choice referendum.

  14. […] yes, I’ll probably be blogging a bit more about the political narrative aspects of all this, because to date comments on everything I’ve written has tended to get dragged towards the […]

  15. […] Ahem. I did mention this a few weeks back.  Not that I’m one to blow my own trumpet, mind. […]

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