Andrew Whitaker: Labour must choose a vote-winner

Tony Blair and supporters celebrate his winning the 1997 election. Picture: Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images
Tony Blair and supporters celebrate his winning the 1997 election. Picture: Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images
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IF the party is to avoid a long spell in the wilderness it must select its new leader with care, writes Andrew Whitaker.

Labour’s disastrous defeat last week has already triggered relentless commentary about how the party faces its biggest crisis in decades, with predictions of a messy contest to succeed Ed Miliband that will help condemn the party to a generation in opposition.

There are fears Labour could turn in on itself as it did in the 1980s and 1950s

But with the ink barely dry on the ballot papers, the response of certain sections of the party seems somewhat knee-jerk, with shadow care minister Liz Kendall first out of the traps to declare her candidacy.

Ms Kendall was swift to join Peter Mandelson in a clarion call for the party to return to the politics of Tony Blair and New Labour, warning that such an approach is the only possible path for a return to power.

As of yesterday, Ms Kendall and Chuka Umunna were the only two to formally declare their interest in the leadership, with the shadow business secretary already issuing something akin to a manifesto in a Sunday newspaper, as well as getting an endorsement from Lord Mandelson.

However, the amount of interest from Labour politicians in replacing Mr Miliband already gives the impression that there are simply too many candidates.

Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper and the party’s health spokesman, Andy Burnham, have all been mentioned so far to name but a few.

There are already fears – with good reason – that Labour could turn in on itself in the way the party did during the 1980s and the 1950s; two periods when it was out of office for well over a decade and gripped by internal battles.

The recently retired Labour MP Austin Mitchell, who was first elected in a 1977 by-election, penned a bittersweet and immensely readable book in the early 1980s called Four Years in the Death of the Labour Party that chronicled the events leading up to and including the party’s heavy defeat at the 1983 election, just four years into what became an 18-year period in government for the Tories.

At the start of Mitchell’s book is a satirical cartoon of Margaret Thatcher and her key allies racing through a town in a Rolls-Royce, knocking people over with the words “cuts to public services”, “inequality” and “austerity” written on their victims.

Overlooking the scene are two people sat inside a café titled the “up the workers’ café”. One turns to the other and says: “This is terrible, shouldn’t we make a citizen’s arrest or something?” The other says: “Good idea comrade, let’s have a punch-up to decide who does it.”

While it’s by no means certain that Labour will begin tearing itself apart in such a way, the prospect of a five- or six-way leadership contest does not necessarily bode well.

Lord Mandelson’s intervention was perhaps all too predictable, with a crude assertion that Ed Miliband’s election as Labour leader in 2010 was as a consequence of “trade union abuse” and that the party’s policies of the last five years were built around the single idea of “hate the rich”.

The former Business Secretary quite possibly already had such remarks already prepared in advance of a Labour defeat, in a “told you so” sort of way.

But to seek to lay the blame for last week’s electoral disaster at the door of the unions and a supposed lurch to the left appears reactionary, knee-jerk and not the considered approach that is needed in what is a very difficult situation for the Labour Party.

Ms Kendall adopted a similar approach with her suggestion that it is time for Labour to be less left-wing, calling for the party to once again embrace the politics of Tony Blair.

Whatever Ms Kendall’s qualities, it’s hard to see how such an approach will get anywhere near uniting a bloodied, bowed and shellshocked Labour Party.

After all, one of New Labour’s key messages in its infancy in the mid-1990s was that what was right in the 1960s and 1970s for Labour was not necessarily the recipe for success in the 1990s and beyond.

To simply call on the next Labour leader to ape Tony Blair’s approach of more than a decade ago – as successful as that was electorally – could arguably be as ill-judged as saying that Labour in the 1990s had to follow the same style as Harold Wilson in the 1960s.

Open minds and cool heads are what is needed above all else if Labour is to avoid a sequel to the 1980s, and a Wilderness Years Part II for the party.

Dan Jarvis, the former paratrooper who served in Afghanistan, with his compelling back story and a solid and well-thought-out commitment to social justice could well have been a candidate to unify Labour and put the party on a long road back to power.

But Mr Jarvis has already ruled himself out, for the immensely understandable reasons that he did not want his children to “lose their dad” as well as their mother, following his first wife’s tragic death some years ago.

Former foreign secretary David Miliband has also ruled himself out, although it’s hard to see how he could have taken over from his brother without leaving the party open to attacks about a Miliband dynasty. He is also no longer an MP.

So Labour is now left with limited options in terms of potential election winners, if not in terms of actual candidate numbers.

For these reasons it is imperative that the simple criteria for how Labour members vote in the leadership contest should be which candidate they feel has the best chance of returning their party to power at the 2020 election.

No other consideration should come into it for anyone with a serious commitment to a Labour revival, and it’s for that reason that those associated with the Gordon Brown and Tony Blair governments should think hard about whether they should clear the way for new faces.

With the position of deputy leader also up for grabs, Labour crucially has to make sure the two positions are gender balanced, with the prospect of an all-male leadership unacceptable for a modern party that successfully championed improved female representation in the Commons through all-women shortlists.

But above all, Labour’s members have to vote for who they think is best placed to try win back the voters who deserted it in Scotland, in the Midlands and in southern England, but at the same time not abandon its reason for being as the party of social justice.