Give us leadership, not dictatorship, says Michael Dugher

For backbenchers, especially for the non-aspirant or the new intake, the election of the shadow cabinet is an entertaining process.  Perhaps this is why so many of us voted for it. Wannabe shadow cabinet members clog up the email inboxes of hitherto ignored Parliamentary colleagues with their CVs.  Backbenchers eagerly await the ‘personal notes’ from candidates to arrive in the post – handwritten to demonstrate the new closeness of the relationship.

Election friends are easily won. But when the next leader of the party says that he or she is “one of a team, not a team of one”, this time they will have to mean it. Labour needs not just a new leader, but new leadership. A different style and approach is required, including to policy-making and to working with colleagues.

All leaders, and especially aspirant leaders in the middle of a leadership election, talk about the need to do things differently, to be more inclusive, to work better with colleagues, and to more closely engage with the Parliamentary and wider party. The difference this time is that the new leader will have little choice but to do things differently.

First, the new leader will not have the mandate – whoever wins – that either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown had. This has been a contest, not a coronation, and the outcome is likely to be very close. The eventual winner is likely to have had to rely on the second preferences of other candidates to cross the line. No one has burst through and run away with the contest. The victor will need to be wise and humble enough to recognise that; and their leadership style will have to reflect that. All the candidates have picked up support amongst different sections of the party, and gained traction for some of the ideas they have floated. Even if they were not his ideas, the eventual winner will need to listen to them.

Second, the new leader will have to work with a shadow cabinet elected by the Parliamentary Labour party. The new leader will not be able to stuff Labour’s cabinet with ex-flat mates and former aides. Some at the top of the party were unhappy with the return to shadow cabinet elections and tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent it. Writing in Labour Uncut, Lesley Smith called instead for some form of elective dictatorship. This argument – the modern day equivalent of the divine right of kings – was an interesting one, though not a persuasive one.

After a debate inside the PLP, Frank Dobson sent out a brilliant email to colleagues countering what he felt was an unfair characterisation of an elected shadow cabinet as somehow a system that produces “popular dossers”. He pointed out that last time Labour elected the Shadow Cabinet, its members included Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Harriet Harman, George Robertson, Margaret Beckett, Jack Straw, David Blunkett and Mo Mowlem. Hardly the mad, bad and dangerous to know.

At this round of shadow cabinet elections, there are likely to be big changes – and not before time.  Some existing shadow cabinet members are retiring from the front bench: veterans like Jack Straw and Alistair Darling.  Others, including those who held senior ministerial posts in the last government, may well fail to get elected.

John Woodcock MP, taking time off from his tenacious campaign for the Trident replacement that has seen the coalition run ragged, wrote in Labour Uncut of the need to preserve some experience in the shadow cabinet. I could not agree more. He even called for the return of Peter Mandelson. I’m not so sure about that. Mandelson, the rubber ball of British politics, has already bounced back more times than Frank Sinatra. But Mandelson himself stresses that elections are fought and won by the party that stands for change and for the future. Sir Geoff Hurst scored a hat-trick in the final of the 1966 World Cup to the applause of a grateful nation. But Fabio Capello wouldn’t pick him to play alongside Wayne Rooney in Brazil 2014.

The PLP is likely to elect a combination of talents. Undoubtedly, they will wish to keep a nucleus of very experienced shadow cabinet members, not least the defeated leadership candidates; but, at the same time, they should use the process to make a clear break with the past and build a team that can be Labour’s face at the next election.

All of this is good for the party and for the leadership. In office we tried to have a ‘government of all the talents’ (the so-called ‘goats’). The shadow team should be an opposition of all talents (though the abbreviation might be ‘oats’, which is unfortunate and is not to be encouraged). It’s all hands to the pump.  The new leader will be stronger if surrounded by the most able, and also the most diverse, group drawn from the PLP.

Labour needs to look, feel and sound like a body that has changed. The plethora of candidates for the shadow cabinet has already demonstrated that the party is blessed with plenty of talent. We have strength in depth, boasting experience and energy. Man-for-man, and woman-for-woman, the Labour squad ought to be able to out-perform a Tory-Lib Dem government that is certainly ‘carrying’ more than its fair share of useless ministers.

The party will unite behind the new leader, but democratic legitimacy will now be shared at Labour’s top table. Accordingly, leadership will have to be collective leadership. The new leader – truly primus inter pares – shouldn’t see this as a constraint, but a source of strength.

As others have acknowledged, strong leadership in the past has meant defining the party leader against the party, the movement or even colleagues. As well as a change of personnel and process, there needs to be a culture change at the top of the party. Sometimes the strong thing to do is to listen and to compromise.

The first big test for Labour’s new leader and shadow cabinet will be in deciding the parameters of our economic policy. The speech to Bloomberg by Ed Balls recently was a game-changer – not necessarily in terms of his leadership campaign, but in terms of demonstrating that there is an alternative economic view to that put forward by the Tory-Lib Dem government. Ed Miliband says we need to look again at our current policy. Of course, he is right. It is, at the very least, the start of a debate inside the party that will involve compromises on all sides, but it is a debate that should continue after the leadership election.

Labour will need a credible economic policy that can withstand serious scrutiny. We will have to show that we are serious about the deficit – that we are not ‘deficit-deniers’ – and that will mean that we cannot oppose every reduction in public spending. We will need a response to the comprehensive spending review (CSR) that provides a credible but compelling alternative to the Tories and Lib Dems, rooted in serious economics but also in different values.

But we are no longer in government, and we don’t, as the opposition, have to produce a shadow CSR (the history of shadow budgets is not a happy one for Labour).  We have to show that, unlike the government, there is more to our vision of the future of the country than simply cutting the deficit. And we have to show that you reduce the deficit by a combination of measures – spending cuts, yes, but also fair tax increases (as Chuka Umunna MP made clear in his blog this weekend) and crucially by policies for jobs and growth. How we do that is worth debating. The idea that we must automatically and slavishly keep with a policy that was part of our election-losing proposition – and stick to it without having any debate at all for the next five years – is foolish.

The next election may not happen until 2015. I have argued previously in Labour Uncut that Labour cannot look inwards, and that we must hit the ground running as an effective opposition, but that we can afford to take our time to debate what our future offer at the next election might be. The leadership election has shown us that there is a debate to be had – and it has been good for the party. Whoever wins the leadership will have the support of the whole party. But he or she should have the courage to continue that debate and to use the best talents of the elected shadow cabinet, and indeed the wider party, to get that future offer right.

We have not had a proper policy review for nearly two decades. We should have one now. And we should involve not just the shadow cabinet, our MPs and our party members, but make it an outward-looking one too, involving the members of the public. What better incentive for people to come to Labour?

The leadership at the top of the party will change in the coming weeks. So, too, must some of our policies. If new leadership is to mean anything, then our forward offer in 2015 cannot be a mirror image of our defeated platform in 2010.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East.

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