As voting starts in the latest Labour leadership election, we take a look back at the post-war history of the competition. Previous episodes have covered the battlefields of the 1950s and ’60s, the 1970s and ’80s and the New Labour years. The final part brings us up to date.
There’s something of an art to leaving office. The finest example in recent times was that of Michael Howard, after losing the general election in May 2005. The day after the vote, he announced that he would be stepping down as leader of the Conservative Party, but not just yet – the contest wouldn’t kick off till the conference in October.
That gave the party five months to reflect on the lessons of three consecutive election losses, while also allowing him to promote the next generation: he appointed George Osborne as shadow chancellor and David Cameron as shadow home secretary, replacing Oliver Letwin and Tim Collins respectively. They thus had a chance to make a bit of a mark before the leadership campaigning began in earnest. It worked perfectly, allowing the party to make a clean break with its recent past. Nothing in Michael Howard’s political life became him like the leaving of it.
If that was an object lesson in how to ensure a smooth and progressive succession, then Gordon Brown’s departure as prime minister was precisely the opposite.
The election results on the morning of Friday 7 May 2010 were inconclusive, and Brown hung on through the weekend in the hope that a coalition might be put together with him at its head. That proved impossible, and on the Monday he announced he was resigning as Labour leader, with his resignation as prime minister following the next day, to allow David Cameron to form a coalition government.
Brown then disappeared from Westminster, retreating to Scotland to lick his wounds, and leaving Harriet Harman – elevated from deputy to acting leader – to carry the can for the next four-and-a-half months until a new leader was installed.
Harman played the part to the best of her abilities, and used prime minister’s questions, in particular, as a vehicle for raising women’s issues that are often overlooked at the highest levels of politics. Nonetheless, it was during this period that the Conservative interpretation of the financial crash – that the Labour government had been culpable – was firmly established. Harman lacked the economic authority needed to fight against this.
The one person who could have done so was Brown, but he made no contribution whatsoever. It must be a horrible, lonely, thankless task being an ex-prime minister in the Commons after an election defeat, with the authority of office drained away, but it is part of the job, as John Major demonstrated in 1997. Brown’s dereliction of duty did massive harm to his party.
Meanwhile, the race was on. Six potential candidates for the leadership declared themselves: David Miliband, the former foreign secretary; his younger brother Ed Miliband, former energy secretary; Ed Balls, former secretary for children, schools and families; Andy Burnham, former health secretary; and – from the Left – two backbenchers, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott.
Of these, the first four – the ones with government experience – seemed bound to collect the necessary 33 nominations from MPs (12.5 per cent of the PLP) to make the ballot paper. But McDonnell, who had fallen at this hurdle last time round, did so again and announced he was withdrawing in favour of Abbott. Even so, she stood no chance of getting the support she needed, so weak was the parliamentary Left.
Until, that is, Labour realised that its candidate list was going to comprise four white men, aged between 40 and 45, and that this wasn’t really the best look for a party that liked to proclaim a commitment to diversity. In a desperate attempt at massaging the image, support was solicited on behalf of Abbott as a left-wing black woman: for the sake of PR, she received nominations from political enemies including Harriet Harman and Jack Straw, as well as – perversely – David Miliband, the front-runner.
Miliband, it was assumed, was the obvious choice: the oldest, most experienced candidate, and the only one who the wider electorate might actually recognize and trust. But the internal feuding of the Blair-Brown years was still smouldering on at this stage, and David Miliband was tainted by his support for Tony Blair.
Union leaders initially favoured backing Balls, as the Brownite hard man, but concluded that he was too abrasive to win, at which point they threw their weight behind Ed Miliband instead. He had been the junior member of Brown’s team back in the 1990s and was assumed to be a leftish option who could win over members without scaring the public. He also had the advantage of not having been an MP at the time of the invasion of Iraq, and was therefore uncontaminated by its memory.
The electoral college remained, as in the last two contests, split into three equally weighted sections for MPs/MEPs, party members and affiliated members (primarily trade unionists). Voting was by the Alternative Vote system, and over the first three rounds of voting, Abbott, Burnham and Balls were successively knocked out.
That left the two Miliband brothers. David had led all the way so far, but in the final count Ed came through to win by a very narrow margin, 50.65 per cent to 49.35 per cent. It wasn’t a very convincing victory: David won a majority among MPs and party members, only losing to his brother when it came to the unions.
Throughout this process, the public displayed little or no interest. The real political story was the novelty of the coalition, and the only bit of the Labour contest that attracted any attention was the soap opera of Ed’s fratricide. It endured – apart from his tussles with a bacon sandwich – as the only fact that everyone knew about him.
Labour’s defeat in the 2015 general election came as an even greater shock than the previous loss. Then, the result had at least been inconclusive. This time, with the economy pretty much stagnant for five years and with favourable opinion polling, the opportunity had been there. And it had been comprehensively missed: Labour’s representation had fallen by 26 seats, and the Conservatives had won their first majority since 1992.
Despite the dreadful example set by Gordon Brown last time round, Ed Miliband made precisely the same mistake. Except now the consequences were even worse. He resigned as leader and again passed the baton to Harriet Harman. The party thus lurched into a leadership contest, without having given a moment’s thought as to why things had gone so catastrophically wrong. As in 2010, a period of reflection was needed; as in 2010, there was no such period.
The search for a credible candidate turned to those who weren’t tainted by what was increasingly being seen as the poisonous legacy of the Blair-Brown years.
Chuka Umunna put himself forward: admittedly, he was yet another smooth young right-leaning London lawyer, a continuation of Blair by other means, but he’d only been elected in 2010, he performed well on television, and he came from a mixed-race background, which prompted some newspapers to talk of him as Britain’s Barack Obama. His attempted candidature, however, lasted just three days before he withdrew, claiming – somewhat oddly – that he wasn’t comfortable with the media scrutiny of him and his family.
Other names being touted included the former Parachute Regiment officer Dan Jarvis (elected 2011), the former economist Rachel Reeves (2010), and Sir Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, who’d been an MP for literally days. What any of them actually believed, where they sat in Labour’s broad church, no one knew; they just looked reassuring and they’d had grown-up jobs outside the Commons. But none put themself forward.
Mary Creagh, on the other hand, did. A comprehensive-educated, working-class candidate from the Midlands, she was considered a serious option, but her pro-business approach to Labour did her no favours, and she failed to secure sufficient nominations to stand.
Those who solicited and received the requisite 35 nominations without any great trouble were Andy Burnham (again), Yvette Cooper (married to previous candidate Ed Balls) and Liz Kendall. Also putting himself forward – or, rather, being pushed forward by his comrades – was Jeremy Corbyn, to represent the Left.
This last candidacy was clearly nothing more than a gesture, yet another doomed attempt by the Left to pretend it still had any meaning in the modern Labour Party. Even so, Corbyn wasn’t an obvious choice. He’d spent 32 years as MP for Islington North and, although he’d made no impression upon Parliament whatsoever, he was senior to Ken Livingstone, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, all of whom had mounted previous challenges for the leadership; no one, on those occasions, had ever suggested that Corbyn might be a better option. But everyone else had had a go, and now Buggin’s turn demanded that Corbyn be offered up as the ritual sacrifice.
It was just a question of getting him on the ballot paper. And, just as Abbott had been helped in 2010, so now was Corbyn nominated by the likes of Frank Field and Margaret Beckett, people who disagreed with him entirely, but felt that the Left should be included in the ‘debate’ about Labour’s future.
There were two crucial flaws in this decision. First, this wasn’t a debate, it was a leadership election. If the party had wanted a debate, it should have followed Michael Howard’s 2005 example, and paused rather than rushing to the hustings. This, indeed, is what Corbyn and the Left wanted: a period of analysis in which they might try to get the party back onto more traditional Labour territory.
The second problem was that the rules had now changed. Ed Miliband, it turned out, was the worst leader the Labour Party had ever had, not only taking it backwards in the Commons, but leaving it with a new and ill-considered electoral system.
All political parties have a tension between the membership and the parliamentary representatives. For Labour this is further complicated by the presence of the trade unions that gave birth to the party; here there are tensions between not two but three separate elements. When the members and the unions felt, at the end of the 1970s, that the PLP was drifting too far from their interests, they took the choice of leader away from the MPs and constructed the electoral college to represent all three wings of the movement. It was a muddled compromise, and minor amendments had to be made over the years, but it did broadly function.
Under Miliband’s leadership, this was casually thrown away. The electoral college ceased to exist, to be replaced by a simple one member-one vote headcount. Well, not entirely simple, because there was also the new class of registered supporter, whereby it was possible to buy a vote for a mere three pounds. But the registered supporters were a side issue. The real problem was allowing the membership to choose the leader.
This had long been the practice with the Liberal Party and its successors, going back to David Steel’s time, and that made some sense, since the party had so few MPs in the first place. It was then adopted by the Conservative Party under William Hague, with the result that Iain Duncan Smith was elected leader, and had to be removed by an MPs coup; the party still theoretically retains the system, but this year it again found a way of choosing a new leader without consulting the membership.
For the Labour Party, the adoption of the system simply threw away the delicate balance that had been so carefully put together. It would, so the theory went, reduce the power of trade unionists, but it did so by handing over complete authority to the rank and file. This should have raised some alarm for those who could remember the 1981 deputy leadership election, when Tony Benn hammered Denis Healey by a margin of nearly five to one in the constituency section. But it didn’t, and now the party was stuck with it.
During the election campaign, the party membership increased dramatically, while over 100,000 took up the registered supporter offer. And Corbyn built up what proved to an unstoppable head of steam.
In essence, his entire sales pitch was to make a contribution to that ‘debate’ over the party’s future. He articulated broad Labour values – in support of state spending and the public sector, against militarism and big business – without feeling any need to develop policy. He found a receptive audience, who also weren’t much interested in policy at this stage. The other candidates found it impossible to argue against him without sounding as though they were already compromising their principles.
Nor were Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham (no one gave Liz Kendall a chance) in much of a condition to fight. They were still demoralized and damaged by the election defeat and looked as though they needed a decent holiday before returning to the fray. They were from the New Labour generation that wasn’t used to losing. Corbyn, though, had a different set of experiences. This was his eighth general election, and he’d been on the losing side in five of them. Even when he’d been on the winning side, he’d been so far removed from the party’s mainstream that he might as well have been in opposition.
The result was decisive. Corbyn won outright in the first round of voting, taking 59.5 per cent of the vote. Burnham improved on his 2010 showing, by coming second with 19 per cent, while Yvette Cooper replicated her husband’s performance, in third place on 17 per cent. And Kendall barely made fourth in a field of four, registering just 4.5 per cent. It wasn’t just the registered supporters that brought success: among the full members of the party, Corbyn was easily on top, with a whisker below half the votes.
The scale of the triumph came as a shock. Over the last weeks of the campaign, as the possibility of a Corbyn victory became a probability, various Labour grandees – from Neil Kinnock and Gordon Brown to Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and David Miliband – tried to warn that he would be a disaster. And every time one of them spoke out, it seemed only to strengthen the will of Corbyn’s supporters to break with Labour’s legacy.
In the last days, attention turned away from how to stop Corbyn’s election and towards the question of how to remove him once he was in. His leadership was never going to be accepted.
And so we come to the present contest. At the time of writing, ballot papers are being distributed and voting has officially started, as Owen Smith pursues what everyone believes to be a lost cause.
What we’re seeing is the playing out of that foolish, destabilizing decision of Ed Miliband to scrap the electoral college. That had, in very difficult circumstances, more or less kept the peace between the wings of the movement. In its absence, a civil war has broken out between the MPs and the membership, the latter led by Corbyn in direct opposition to the PLP. There appears no great will for a new compromise to be hammered out; rather, the two sides are drifting further apart from each other.
Perhaps the only hope for the continuation of the party rests with the likelihood that Corbyn is a transient figure. He’s now 67 and – one way or another – he is not going to be the leader in five years time. If the party can hold itself together in some form, then his successor might be able to bring the MPs, the members and a respectable chunk of the electorate together. It’s certainly not going to happen on his watch.
For the immediate future, should Smith lose as predicted, then a new attempt may well be made next year. Which brings us back to where we started, with the annual contests as the Left mounted its challenge to the leadership of Hugh Gaitskell. Maybe somewhere, there’s a new Harold Wilson waiting to emerge.
POSTSCRIPT: Just for the record, the result of the election, announced on 24 September 2016 was unambiguous: Jeremy Corbyn won 62 per cent of the votes, Owen Smith won 38 per cent. The number of votes cast was up by over 80,000, meaning that more than half a million members participated.
Part 1: 1955-1963 – Gaitskell & Wilson
Part 2: 1976-1988 – Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock & Benn
Part 3: 1992-2008 – Smith, Blair & Brown