Pub quiz question: who is the leader of the Labour party?

by Peter Watt

I don’t know what’s wrong with me this week. I just feel miserable. I have even got to the point that I can barely be bothered to tweet, and that really is a bad sign. But why am I feeling flat now? I mean, for months now, I have been worried about what seemed to be the direction of travel of the party with dog whistles to the left. For months I have worried that the outcomes of the party reform debate would be a damp squib. And for months I have worried that we seemed to be all but leaderless.

So on that basis, surely in the last few weeks things have started to look up? Ed has begun to define himself and his philosophy of “social justice with a hard edge” and an end to the “take what you can culture”. And he has shown real leadership on party reform by demanding an end to elections to the shadow cabinet and hinting at reforming the relationship with the trade unions. For me, these still don’t go far enough and probably could have, and should have, been said months ago. And, crucially, we still have little or no credibility on the economy.

But it absolutely has to be welcomed, and with four years to go until the next general election it is a start. Despite some people feeling uncomfortable about the new approach, on the whole the party seems buoyed after a difficult few months. David Cameron has looked rattled at PMQs and the U-turn taunts hurt because they reflect a very real problem for him and his government. We can probably relax just a bit until conference season. The beach beckons.

So, why then am I miserable now?

It is because we are so bloody irrelevant.

I think that I have only just noticed, but the fact is that most people are not listening, not looking and, quite frankly, don’t care about us. We are in opposition – we are just not where the action is. This “revelation” came to me last week when I was taking my usual constitutional (a couple of pints) at my local. There is a group of regulars who always have a chat, put the world to rights and enjoy playing on the quiz machine, and on the whole they are pretty good at it. But last week one of the questions was, “What is the name of the leader of the Labour party”? They didn’t know the answer. I was stunned. Surely they should know? But then again, on reflection, why should they?

The Labour party plays no part in their lives. It has no effect on them, so they don’t even think about us. Who cares about who the leader of the Labour party is? They know who the government is, the prime minister and Nick Clegg. They know who the new manager of Chelsea is (André Villas-Boas, if you’re interested) and that the price of petrol is a rip off.  They are grateful that we’re not Greece, “know” that Labour screwed the economy and that most jobs are taken by foreigners. But the leader of the Labour party? Nope.

To a very large extent this is inevitable. It will change as we get closer to a general election when people begin to think about the choice that they are about to make. But right now we are all but invisible. And although I know that this is inevitable, the fact of it makes me miserable. I spend so much time arguing and worrying about things that just don’t really matter at the moment. I was excited that Ed is going to end elections to the shadow cabinet – and the pub quiz machine gang were ecstatic (that was irony). I enjoyed the social justice with a hard edge speech – and the guys in the pub just hate scroungers. I have found myself, once again, reflecting on the bizarre nature of politics, in which we aficionados seem to operate in another universe to most of the rest of the world. I have found myself questioning whether the time and energy I spend in the political bubble is really worth it. I might be able to answer the who is the leader of the Labour party question. But I’d probably struggle on show business and music.

So where does this leave me? I’m not sure. I am sure that the miserable feelings will subside; I’m an optimist at heart. But I hope that the questioning of what is really important does not. It seems to me that if we are to be ready for that fleeting moment when we become noticed, then we need to do a lot better at being relevant. While what we do and say now is not being really noticed, it is though building up a sense, a feeling of what and who we are. It is sending signals about who we are favour and whose side we are on.

The last few weeks have been positive, but we need to be honest that at this stage no one outside the political world has noticed. We are and will remain pretty irrelevant to the debate for some time to come. Suddenly the general election seems a very long time away.

Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.

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10 Responses to “Pub quiz question: who is the leader of the Labour party?”

  1. Tokyo Nambu says:

    PMQs yesterday was a case in point. Things he could have talked about, relevantly, would have included why it is that public sector workers including the most traditionally moderate of the teachers’ unions feel the need to strike. Or why it is that the Home Secretary, having talked tough over border controls, has failed to keep a banned individual out. The issue of whether he should be banned is incidental, as Jacqui Smith did her fair share of silly spiteful banning, too, but rather the issue is that once someone has been banned, they should not be admitted unless and until that banning order is challenged and rescinded. It’s not for the borders people to overturn the lawful instructions of elected ministers.

    But unfortunately, Ed’s guns are spiked. He knows he can’t support the strikes against pension changes, because they’re roughly the measures a Labour government would have had to face, or will have to face in re-elected. There would be differences in what a Labour government would do, but the basic principle of an 80ths accrual rate final-salary RPI indexed at sixty is not going to survive any political party’s five year term. But he knows he can’t criticise the strikes either, because the public sector unions are major funders of the party. And the issue of banning orders is toxic to Labour because (a) their track record on effective border control is to say the least a complex narrative and (b) the guy in question was invited by Labour MPs (something that Yvette Cooper is struggling with in her statements).

    So instead, he embarked on some incomprehensible thing about wanting Cameron to promise that no-one made redundant as part of NHS re-organisations would ever be re-employed by the NHS. What? In what world is this something a Labour leader should be doing? Is he saying that were NHS organisation X to make someone redundant, but at a later point NHS organisation Y wishes to re-employ them, that’s a bad thing? So bad that the Prime Minister should make a personal promise that it wouldn’t happen? I bet NHS staff threatened with redundancy think that’s an excellent policy, don’t you? And he persisted in that, and that alone, for the entire course of PMQs. It was totally incompetent, and the sort of thing that would embarrass a student union debsoc.

  2. Chris says:

    Good question…good article…
    Just my personal opinion, you understand, but from my point of view – as someone who has supported the Labour party for more than thirty years…never a member but I’ve turned out at every (I think!) election since I could vote and put my cross next to the labour candidate…even when I thought the party had gone round the flippin’ bend back in the 80’s and even when I could see little difference between Blair and a tory wet!!!
    Thing is, you’re “my” party…I’m probably middle class (I hate the whole class thing) but I’m a working man…I’ll never be rich or “posh” – I know the tories will screw me…and the libs/socdems+libs/libdems – they dont really stand for much! (I always thought they didn’t even seem to know what they stand for themselves – except grabbing any bit of power – turns out I was right!)
    I’d love to may more but just two points; otherwise this will become its own blog!
    First, the party (and therefore Ed) seems to not care about a lot of the things that its traditional supporters care about…you mention the guys in the pub ““know”… that most jobs are taken by foreigners”. I know that’s nonsense but it is a real fear and one that was brilliantly played played upon by the Tories (helped, of course by Gordon’s “bigot” comments). Where I live we have a relatively small “foreign” population but in my job I regularly meet people who believe that the local Poles are responsible for most of the burgleries in the area and that immigrants are as big a cause for the state of the economy as investmant banks – I guess this is partly because they can understand the concept of their grandson not be able to get a job at a local firm because of the number of “foriegners” there; but who understands investmant banking? Whatever the rights and wrongs of this, frankly the labour party come over as “snooty” over this issue (how can you possibly believe that?)…this impression hasn’t changed with the new leadership…
    Second, Ed’s comments on todays strikes. It may be (probably will) that the strike makes little difference…it may actually even be a mistake – but we don’t need Miliband to tell us! Once again, you (the party) seem distant and uncaring. Doesn’t Ed milliband understand that people are feeling scared about their and attacked in the present?
    I understand the difficult politics involved…but show some empathy for goodness sake!
    Frankly, for the first time in more than thirty years, if there was an election tomorrow, I’m not sure who I’d vote for; I know you’re not “left wing loonies” and I don’t think you are Blair’s “tories by another name” anymore – but I don’t know what the hell you are!

  3. Tim says:

    Here’s my response to Ed Miliband’s irresponsible speech on responsibility:

    The reason Labour is irrelevant is because they are just a Tory clone instead of an alternative. I am fed up with this blaming of the poor for their own poverty – it’s a lazy substitute for creating good jobs for more people.

  4. hometruths says:

    Which is why Ed has been right to take his time for a really good think about what Labour did wrong and how we can put it right, and all the bleating from some quarters that he is getting it all wrong is wide of the mark.

    Labour will only be relevent in the next couple of years if the coalition looks like it could fall apart and frankly apart from a few waves on the surface it is rock solid.

    So we should take this opportunity to clean house, start rebuilding or strengthening local campaining bases and bring forward policies that have clearly been thought through unlike this slapdash coalition. Then our time to be heard will come.

  5. John P Reid says:

    I too have been concerned about the direction of the party,I was all for a left winger getting thorugh to the next round of the 2010 Leadeship election,And john Mcdonell would have made a great choice,but Diane Abbott had to much baggage, and surley her past would be rought up, Abbott had got up on stage at a meeting in 1988 with a bavaclava’d member of the IRA (not that Sinn Fein aren’t the IRA ,but that’s not the point),her 1987 comment all white people are racist was still brought up on the door by people who wouldn’t vote labour and then there was her Finnish nurses comment.

    laurie penny, Sunny hundal had rejoined, John Mcdonnell and David winnick had supoported the violence at the student protests
    and Karen Buck and sadiq kahn had said that the tories like seeing poor people and didn’t want them to breed, Yet Ed hadn’t distanced himself from their comment

    Ken Livingstone had backed the Indeendent Luftur and Ed miliband didn’t criticise him ,Yet Luftur is using Trotskyite measures to get himslef back in the party now,I wonder if any labour members Have “VOT BORIS in 2012″-but only for your second choice ,oh and vote for whoever the labour person is for your first choice” whether they won’t get in trouble

    I’m not sure what to make of Blue labour some of Blue labour is interesting and some that helen goodman is criticisng is a crock,
    I’m not sure what refounding labours all about, We have unions funding us, the Unions are a vote loser for labour and should’nt decide party policy, same as when Blair was in (he did win 3 election) it was right to say nu labour is over, but what’s replaced it,

    Harriet Harman’s call for wither the leader or Deputy to be A woman ,no one has took into acocunt that Had diane won the leadershgip election last year then both leader and Deputy would be female and that Harriet would have had to have resigned as they both couldn’t be female.

    The issue that seems to appeal to the Blairites is Ed’s backing of inncoent rape suspects DNA being kept on the database, smae as when soem Loaub rwomen were crticising the idea that innocent people who are arrested for rape, should have their name in the public domain ,beifr ehtey’ve been found guilty and subjected to the hatred that having your name out their despite not beign found guilty can cause,

    I have to say that I feel Ed is wrong on the shadow cabinet elections too, as If i was In Diane abbott sshoes i would have followed Harold Wilson in 1951 and resigned (her for rightly disagreeing with innocents DNA being kept) and (wilson for NHS charges) Wilson soon made it back to the shadow cabinet through the elecions, and i could see if the shadow cabinet elections were kept that if someone resigned on principle about it now they could be back in a few years time

  6. John P Reid says:

    The far left has a view that anyone who say’s anti white racism exists is a racist that anyone who understands why so many former working class labour voters who have flirted with wither the EDL or the BNP are going to be persuaded to vote for labour if we point out that saying the slightest little thing about excessive immigration is racist and if we call anyone who doesn’t vote labour because they see multiculturalism leading to ghetto’s (a racist) then they’re gonna come back and vote labour because they realise that they were racist and hat their former opinion was wrong
    and the likes of hilary wainright and Socialist unity are still peddling that they’re gonna take over the party.and that the the deficit and the 50p tax rate. eren’t reasons why we lost, similar was kens (criticism of blue laobur book, I also fel tit was a shaame that when she went ot the lords that Oona was replaeced on the NEC by the next person along as that might have not been alot of peoples choice ,

  7. Richard says:

    “Is he saying that were NHS organisation X to make someone redundant, but at a later point NHS organisation Y wishes to re-employ them”

    No Tokyo Nambu, you missed the point. NHS employees are currently being made redundant and asked to reapply immediately for the same posts, having to go through the entire application and interviews process in order to be rehired on lower pay grades. It’s rife in my local hospital.

  8. paul barker says:

    Sorry this is so late, been offline, between houses.
    To answer Mr Watts question, I beleive hes miserable because subconsciously hes beginning to see that Labour is dying; while his conscious mind would see the idea as ridiculous.
    He will be picking up on things still below the surface, the fall in membership, the unwillingness to talk about Labours Debts & the old divisions bubbling up under new names.

  9. AmberStar says:

    Doing the groundwork is always boring. Labour haven’t turned into a fued-ing, fighting mess; Ed Miliband has kept himself below the radar. This means people who follow politics are bored & disappointed with him. And those who aren’t interested in politics, they don’t know who he is or what the Labour Party is doing.

    Do you feel insecure & afraid of the future, Peter? Labour could work really hard, not see a result for 4 more years & maybe still not get elected – all that effort for nothing!

    Welcome to the world of the people Labour ought to be representing. The people who don’t know what the future holds; who put in effort everyday with little hope of finding a job or making the job they have more secure, never mind getting a promotion or having a decent house & pension at the end of it all. That’s what is important… making Labour relevant to all these people who’d like to have a Party which represents them. Are you up for that challenge, Peter? Or is it too much like hard graft?


  10. john reid says:

    amber star, I take your point but the ignoring the internal debates on the failures of New labour as ex member rejoin like Livingstone getting Luthur back is Like Wilson ignoring Militant joining in 1964, or the one more push and we will win option of 1987 and 1992

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