In just over a month we will know who the next leader of the Labour party will be – but for now the result is still in the balance! Ballot papers go out at the start of September and we can anticipate the campaign hotting up over the next few weeks.
There have been some justified criticisms of the campaign: the formulaic nature of the debates; the lack of official hustings in some regions and the pressure put on some CLPs to drop planned hustings, all signs of the top-down, control and command culture the party needs to lose as soon as possible.
The decision to have the campaign continue until conference though, has I think, been thoroughly vindicated. When NEC members were discussing the timetable last May there was a lot of pressure to get the election out of the way as soon as possible. I understood the arguments but it was clear to me that party members wanted time to assess what had happened over 13 years of government and to judge the merits of the respective candidates. They were in no mood to be bounced into a decision and the tendency to bounce members unnecessarily is one the new leadership can do without.
As a result, the mood in the party is nothing like the rancour of the late 1970s/early 1980s-thank God!
That said, once the leadership election is over we do need to move very quickly to put the party into a position to effectively challenge this Conservative government.
There seems to be an assumption in much of the party that this government will run its full five years. That may be the case – but I wouldn’t bet on it. The Lib Dems could pull the plug on it next year or Cameron could decide at any point to cut and run. The Labour party and our new leader need to be ready for any eventuality – and that means some important organisational decisions need to be made quickly.
The first thing we need to do is to look at our parliamentary selection procedure. We all know the importance of the candidate and the party building a relationship with the voters. I felt for candidates at the last election who were selected at the last minute as a result of MPs delaying the announcement of their resignation. My estimate is that this cost us five or six seats alone! We need to ensure that this doesn’t happen again and candidates in all seats – Labour, marginal or ‘challenging’ -are given the maximum opportunity to campaign and build up the Labour vote.
We also need to prepare thoroughly to put the party’s case at a possible parliamentary boundary review. Just like the Texas Republicans, the Tories are not going to let things like fairness or community stand in the way of the boundaries they want. We need to be well organised to counter them. It can be done and was done in the 1990s but we must take the challenge seriously.
We must also look at our policies – especially the economic ones. We need to ensure we have the right policies for the current economic situation, based on Labour values and capable of winning back the support lost over recent years.
We need to look at how we make policy. At the moment we have a very deliberative procedure designed to take years to produce results. Frankly, we don’t have time for that. When the leadership election is over people will be asking where we stand on the key issues and we need to be able to give strong answers.
In opposition we must be able to respond quickly, exposing this government’s inconsistencies/hypocrisy (Osborne wants to reduce poverty by cutting benefits!) and articulating the concerns of people at the sharp end of this government’s policies. That will require both the NEC and new leadership to move quickly and get the party on the front foot.
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