by Jonathan Todd
“You have to be ready for anything,” Dan Jarvis told the BBC when they recently asked about his Labour leadership ambitions. “Owen Smith: I am interested in being Labour leader,” reads a New Statesman headline from earlier this month. This appeared not long after Jess Phillips had been the subject of similar in the Spectator. Stephen Kinnock and Michael Dugher have also been touted as future leaders.
That foraging in the undergrowth is the cut and thrust of competition to be trademarked “the next leader of the Labour party”. Andy Burnham was sufficiently deemed so to enter the 2010 leadership election as favourite, while Chuka Umunna once had the strongest claim on this title among the 2010 intake. Those comprehensively beaten by Jeremy Corbyn (Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, as well as Burnham) may struggle to again accumulate the political capital necessary to mount viable leadership campaigns, while Umunna has slipped behind the likes of Jarvis et al in “the next leader” stakes.
The experiences of Burnham and Umunna ought to be salutatory to those now seeking to be “the next leader”. “The next leader” is rarely the next leader. Gordon Brown in 1994, for example, was “the next leader”; Tony Blair was then the next leader. Given that Labour is unlikely to recover in 2020 the 59 parliamentary seats lost in Scotland in 2015, and the boundary review will probably cost Labour a further 20 seats, a new leader before 2020 seems a much worse bet than Blair in 1994 to be the next Labour prime minister.
All the more reason to not want to now be “the next Labour leader,” right?
Not least as, once this status is held, all slips are magnified. David Miliband will never look at bananas as he once did. In 2008, when Miliband arrived at party conference waving one, Labour had what George Osborne is now determined to deprive us of: a robust brand.
Through John Major’s underpants to Theresa May’s proclamation of a “nasty party”, via William Hague’s baseball cap, the Tory brand was on the floor for a long period. It is debateable how completely David Cameron salvaged it. But it is undeniable that the early phase of his leadership, chasing huskies and hugging hoodies, was dedicated to this cause.
Over 13 years in government, Labour got a lot right and some things wrong. The Labour membership now can’t agree what was right and wrong. But the public’s view of Labour has remained positive enough that our brand – while battered, bruised and in need of TLC – has not trawled the depths endured by the Tories prior to Cameron.
Osborne now seeks to drag us to this nadir. Jeremy Corbyn’s approval rating is minus 39. Osborne’s aim is to damn Labour by association with Corbyn, making us the “nasty party” in the eyes of as many of the public as possible, comprehensively weakening the party brand that the leader must draw succour from on their quest for Downing Street. Given how enthusiastically Labour elected Corbyn and how loyal much of the party remains to him, Osborne fancies his chances.
Behind the gathering storm clouds over the global economy, however, lurks optimism for putative holders of “the next leader” title. The Tories did not hold a lead over Labour on the economy between the debacle of the UK’s ERM exit in 1992 and the financial crisis of 2008. This suggests that outside of crisis periods, there is a default to the governing party on economic management but during crisis periods, this default flips to the opposition. What Ed Balls toiled to achieve over the last parliament, a Labour lead on the economy, may, therefore, much more easily be secured if the global economy goes as south as it is threatening.
The Lawson boom and bust, though, did not stop the Tories winning in 1992. Governing parties may, consequently, be capable of enduring blemishes on their economic record if their leader is sufficiently dominant over the leader of the opposition.
Stephen Kinnock might think, assisted by a global downturn shattering Tory economic credibility, that he can succeed where his father failed. If he, a guest editor of the Progress site, were to do so, would Tony Blair have his party back?
What is certain is that there are plenty of reasons to not want, especially at this juncture, to be “the next leader”. What is less certain is how the global economy will perform and whether the UK political implications will include rapidly enhancing the advantages of being “the next leader”.
This calculus of what is certain and uncertain tends to recommend a course that Roy Jenkins described in his autobiography as, “to lie fallow in the House of Commons”. Do the diligent constituency work that may be crucial to staying an MP if Labour fall as low as 25 per cent in 2020, as does not feel impossible. Avoid a national profile large enough that it is tarnished by association if Osborne succeeds with his efforts to trash Labour’s brand.
But if all Labour MPs lie fallow, the Corbyn era may last longer than it otherwise would. The PLP is in a prisoner’s dilemma. Cooperation is the best response. Not competition to be “the next leader”.
Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut