Sunday, May 25, 2008

Why do the press have such a poor understanding of the Labour party?

I had to smile today when I saw the Sunday Times claiming that David Miliband was about to become Labour leader - and all by just networking with some other MPs! Anyone would think they didn't understand the difference between Labour and the Tories.

You'd think they'd have learnt their lesson when their predictions that Alan Johnson would become leader and then deputy leader didn't materialise. Careless newspapers also like to claim that Jon Cruddas and Hillary Benn are also potential leadership candidates, ignoring that they too both got defeated in the deputy leadership contest.

At the root of this misunderstanding is the belief that to gain leadership of Labour you simply need to curry favour in the Westminster village (with MPs, press and apparatchniks) - after all that is how the leadership of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats works. But it's different in Labour.

Apart from the fact that the Labour party has a very complicated electoral college where MPs, constituency members, unions and affiliates such as the Co-op all have their say, the Labour membership is the most diverse of the three main political parties. People from all walks of life are represented - aspirant working class types who were the first in their families to go to university and who support New Labour, and old socialists who still think Michael Foot was hard done by; the old middle class (by which I mean their family have been middle class for at least three generations) who believe conspicuous consumption is bad manners, and the new middle class people who secretly aspire to the Blair-bling lifestyle; people who are descended from barons and people who were formerly Militant; business people and anti-capitalists; people from every single religion (including atheists) and people of every skin colour.

This diversity is Labour's strength - if you can forge a platform that appeals somehow to this entire range of people, you have a good chance of winning a general election, as Britain itself is this varied and diverse. The downside is that you have to work extremely hard to build such a platform. It took New Labour a good six years to formulate their ideas, and even so, Blair was nervous enough in his leadership battle in 1994 to ask Brown to step aside so as not to split his vote. In the end he got 57% of the vote, the lowest being among the affiliates (52.3%).

It's not possible to forge such a platform just working out of Westminster/London, as Alan Johnson and Jon Cruddas have found. The mistake Cruddas made was to believe that all Labour constituencies are just like his working-class constituency of Dagenham. Actually the problems he faces there are shared by some constituencies in the north and midlands, plus other London constituencies but are quite alien to parts of the south coast and the western cities like Bristol and Cardiff. As a result he was far behind Harriet Harman and Hilary Benn when it came to the individual members. The main people impressed with him were the affiliates, who co-incincidently have a big working class element. Alan Johnson on the other hand relied on endorsement in Parliament. He was massively ahead amongst the MPs. He should have done better among the constituency members but was too lazy to visit them, replying purely on puff pieces in the press. Constituency members were not impressed.

The above should illustrate how hard it will be to become leader of the Labour party, especially if there are several candidates. It's simply impossible to build the platform and coalition in just a few weeks. And if you are a former apparatchnik like the Miliband brothers, Balls and Purnell, whose only experience is dealing with Whitehall and the London press, it will be even harder.

My advice to the hopefuls is to spend the next two years touring all the constituencies and getting to know not just all the various sub-cultures (all of which exist in the electorate at large) but also listen to the feedback from the activists who are at the sharp end. Crewe and Nantwich may have been lost because the local party didn't have enough input into the by-election. Understand that the constituencies tend to be more middle class than the affiliates and that to win the leadership you need somehow to appeal to both. If you are too working class, you lose the constituency members especially in the south, if you have too much emphasis on the parliamentary party, you lose the affiliates. And all of us, MPs, members and affiliates want to see how the candidates perform. At the moment we simply don't know enough. Having to deal with the advsere situation over the next two years will be beneficial training for the candidates. Perhaps Purnell will learn to be less smug, Balls less abrasive and Yvette Cooper might learn to wear more make-up and get a softer haircut.

There is something else. I've written before about how the Obama phenomenon is in large part being propelled by a new generation coming of age, and that this will affect politics in the UK too. The Tories are not tapping into this new group - most of their support comes instead from the over 55's who voted for Thatcher. Therefore it is imperative that the next iteration of the Labour party takes account of the new group. But such a re-working can't be forged in a few weeks. It will take many months of hard thinking.

This is another reason to resist the hysteria in the press for a snap leadership election. Constantly changing the leadership is merely displacement activity that gets in the way of hard questions and hard decisions. Use the time to the next election to think and listen. Then when the starting gun is fired for the leadership we should have some properly evolved positions to choose from.


Anonymous said...

Snowflake- granted the leadership rules for Labour are complicated, and entrenched in the traditions of the party, but I know Gordon has lost much of the base support, and would lose heavily against virtually any challenger now.

Gordon has lost the confidence of the grassroots.

snowflake5 said...

tyson - I don't think Gordon would lose, especially if he was faced with a Purnell for instance.

Secondly most of the grassroots are aware that this leadership challenge thing is something cooked up by the media, who love to think it is they who decides who leads the various political parties. Well they don't decide for Labour.

Thirdly, I stand by by view that constant leadership challenges are knee-jerk displacement activity. You actually lose precious time that you should devote to reflections and analysis if you indulge in them.

Anonymous said...

Labour too has no idea how to tap into the 'next generation' who are firmly behind Obama in the USA. No Party which goes against scientific and police advice (and the evidence that the existing policy was reducing usage) would regrade cannabis to class-B, if it did.

Cannabis smokers are numerous - perhaps as many as 10-15 million Britons - and hate the 'war on drugs' because it's viewed as an attack on their own chosen lifestyle. Think banning alcohol and imagine the payback any government would get, and you'll get an idea of what smokers feel about weed.

Last night, when the stabbing in Sidcup was made known, I thought about highlighting Labour's policy towards knives which the Home Secretary publicised two days previously. Go read what is written on Labour's homepage and you'll realise why I didn't bother. The war on 'youths' (or yobs, or hoddies) continues and it's counter-productive.

snowflake5 said...

Labour Matters - regarding "scientific" evidence on cannabis, there is medical evidence that it triggers mental illness in adolescence. And I've personally witnessed this happen to someone, it was unbelievably painful to watch and it has ruined their life. I'm with the government on this.

I also don't see anything wrong with what Jacqui Smith said on knife crime. Labour has put in a lot of money tackling the causes of crime - they've tried to find employment for people, the economy has done well, so people should have been able to earn their way out of their situations, they've provided Sure Start so that people from the estates have a reasonable chance to do well at school. Under Prescott, millions were spent upgrading council estates because studies showed that bad housing/infrastructure exacerbated bad behaviour. Now it's time for the stick.

It's interesting we disagree on all of this - see how complex the Labour party is? Which proves my point that the next leader will have to work extremely hard at producing a platform that resonates with both of us.