Euan McColm: Faint hearts won’t win over Labour

Tony Blair in 1997 was self-assured and driven. He exuded confidence. Picture: PA
Tony Blair in 1997 was self-assured and driven. He exuded confidence. Picture: PA
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WHEN, a decade ago, ­Carol Craig opened the Scottish Centre for Confidence and Well-being, I sneered.

The organisation’s objective of encouraging individuals to achieve happier, more productive lives through building confidence seemed to me to be “new age” nonsense; yet another product on the self-help production line to sit beside reiki and neuro-linguistic programming.

‘Sturgeon campaigned with confidence while Scottish Labour dripped desperation’

Craig’s charity – her response to what we all know as “the Scottish cringe” – was not for me, thanks all the same.

But then I had an advantage when it came to matters of confidence: I had plenty of it. I still do, and although there’s a good case to be made for my self-belief being wildly misplaced, confidence has made life easier, particularly when it comes to persuading employers to take a chance on me.

Growing older and, hopefully, less selfish, I started to think more about the lack of confidence that holds some people back; about the self- fulfilling prophesy of self-doubt. Go into an interview exuding fear and the chances are you’ll walk out disappointed. Look at your shoes while inviting someone to dinner and the likelihood is you’ll dine alone.

It is not, however, only in our personal interactions that confidence is important. It matters when we choose what products to buy and which ­political parties to vote for.

Confident politicians are, unsurprisingly, the most attractive to us.

Think of former Labour prime minister Tony Blair in 1997. He was self-assured and driven. He exuded confidence. When Blair spoke, people (or enough people to see him win three elections on the trot) believed what he was saying. As important as his policy agenda was, the fact that he appeared to know what he was doing was essential.

When Alex Salmond came back for a second stint as leader of the SNP, he had a similar infectious self-belief. True, Salmond had never lacked confidence, but with a little finesse, his bullishness was redrawn as belief in Scotland. This confidence for his country paid electoral dividends (though the old Salmond is well and truly back now, more’s the pity).

Last month’s general election was clearly a disaster for Scottish Labour. The loss of all but one of its seats in the face of a remarkable SNP surge exposed a party ill-at-ease with itself, unsure of how to deal with a modern politics in which it had been recast as the underdog rather than the dominant force.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon campaigned with confidence while Scottish Labour dripped desperation and uncertainty. Of course, the matter of the constitutional question had a significant effect on the outcome, but Labour’s lack of confidence didn’t do it any favours.

The UK Labour Party doesn’t have the excuse of a recent and messy independence referendum to explain away its poor result in May. Instead, it can only blame itself for picking a leader who drove policies which failed to chime with voters and who failed to inspire confidence in the electorate.

As Ed Miliband fades into the background, it’s clear that the Labour Party is still struggling with that confidence thing.

This past week, we’ve seen a party wracked with doubt, unable to move on from its recent humiliation.

David Miliband, defeated by his brother in the 2010 leadership contest, spoke out, explaining that his worst fears about the party’s prospects under Ed had been borne out. Given that Miliband (D) is not currently an MP and in no position to effect any real change in the way Labour does business, his words did little but further unsettle former ­colleagues.

For those of us outside the Labour party, David Miliband’s remarks were fairly entertaining. He did not want Ed to be hurt of vilified, he said, and he felt no consolation in any sense of vindication by his brother’s defeat. When he said he didn’t want his brother to be hurt or vilified, perhaps he should have added “by anyone but me”.

But it wasn’t only the thwarted would-be leader who helped to expose Labour’s crisis of confidence. Blair’s former spin-doctor, Alastair Campbell, had hugely unhelpful words, too.

Campbell explained that he and many other Labour supporters had long feared that Ed Miliband could not win the last election but had decided to keep quiet out of loyalty. That loyalty to the party extended now to threatening to cause chaos if the next leader didn’t meet up to his expectations in terms of policy.

Campbell would not, he said, be publicly supporting any of the current candidates for leader. Instead, he’d cast his vote privately and then fall into line behind the victor.

But if that new leader failed in the next couple of years to show that he or she understood what was needed (as far as Campbell was concerned) to win the 2020 election, then he’d be leading the charge to remove that person.

It fell to former deputy prime minister John Prescott to point out to David Miliband that his remarks were unsettling and unwelcome. Nobody in the party had much to say about Campbell’s equally unhelpful intervention.

There are four candidates to be the next leader of the Labour Party – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Jeremy Corbyn – and whichever one of those wins, they’ll need to show some self-belief. A leader without confidence might as well not bother.

It’s clear that whoever does take over from Miliband will be inheriting a party with a desperate lack of confidence. Defeat – thwocking great defeat – will do that to a party.

The interventions of David Miliband and Campbell have done nothing to help battered Labour stand up, stick its chest out, and look the electorate in the eye. Instead, they have exposed the party’s uncertainty and division, and made stark the fact that – right now – it doesn’t seem to have an obvious prime minister in waiting in its ranks.

If Labour can’t show some confidence in itself, then why should any of us? «