openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Labour’s new leader must be a capacity builder

Britain’s Labour party has five potential futures...

Neal Lawson
3 April 2020, 12.55pm
Keir Starmer, 2013
Image: Chatham House

At any other time, the election of a new Labour Party leader would be a front-page story. Tomorrow’s announcement will happen, but will hardly scratch the consciousness of a nation with other things on its mind.

Compass, the organisation I'm the Director of, ended its singular link with Labour in 2011 when our membership voted to welcome people of all parties and none who back our Good Society values. The bet was that the complexity and scale of the challenges we faced were too big for the already shrinking forces of social democracy to manage alone. We think we were right – but we would, wouldn’t we?

But while we need a very plural future, the political reality is that under a first-past-the-post voting system Labour remains the biggest tent on the progressive campsite. So, who leads it matters. But whoever is declared the victor tomorrow will be of little significance, unless they lead very differently.

Labour faces five possible futures:

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  1. It wins the next election and is ready to help transform the country
  2. It wins, but is unprepared for the task of transformation
  3. It loses, but builds the foundations for future transformative success
  4. It loses, wastes the next four years but stumbles on because the voting system keeps it on life support
  5. It loses and falls apart like the Greek social democrats in 2015.

If one of the three better outcomes is to be achieved, then it is going to take a very brave, bold and humble new leadership to get the party there.

The first point here is that Labour’s new leader will operate in the context of unfolding and manifest crises. The pandemic now, but a financial and economic crisis that will follow, the crisis of inequality after that, and then of housing, care and climate, before a new pandemic hits.

All of this at a moment of fundamental weakness for the left, that has neither a coherent agent of change (the working class) or a system of governance (command and control bureaucracies) at its disposal as it did in the middle decades of the last century.

Indeed, the alliance between working and middle classes that underpinned Labour electorally, could already be broken for good. Meanwhile, globalisation, financialisaton and individualisation have left parties of labour weak everywhere.

In the UK, Corbynism has been tried. It did win some important arguments and brought Labour many new members. But it failed to win the county. The danger now is that the party imagines there is some ‘soft left’ sweet spot between Corbynism and Blairism from which it can win, govern and transform again. This is a cruel delusion.

The COVID-19 crisis provides an opportunity, we all see, for new forms of collectivism and solidarity. But the form it takes will be contested. Some progressives are falling prey to a ‘virus determinism’ just as they did a ‘crash determinism’ in 2008.Evenys wont simply do our work for us. While, society will almost inevitably be more collective as a result of C19 but whether its authoritarian and elitist collectivism or democarctic and egalitarian is down to us

In an age defined by populism versus pluralism, Labour must try a very new approach, not triangulate between two old and tired poles. Of course, it can exist, pumped up by the steroid boost first-past-the-post injects into it every election – happy to accept second place and the trappings of being Her Majesty’s Opposition, but blocking the path of anything new. But what is the point of that?

The core of a new approach is contained in one word – capacity. Can Labour’s new leader see him or herself as the capacity builder of the countervailing forces to really transform our country as it comes out of the corona-crisis?

These forces are: vision, policy, narratives and alliances across politics, business and civil society. The new leader’s immediate focus should be the capacity of the Shadow Cabinet, the PLP, party members and councils. Can they unlock all that team potential and empower them? They should then reach out to other progressive parties and forces, at every level expanding the project, occupying new space.

The only alternative is to contract, to circle the wagons ever tighter and hope that thinking you’re right is good enough or that something will turn up. Of course a leader who can command widespread respect in the country, the media and the Commons is essential, but it is now so far from sufficient.

In all this Labour’s leader and the party must reassess and change one big thing, their sense of exceptionalism and uniqueness. Instead of intoning the dreadful line “Only Labour can do X, Y or Z”, its mantra must become “Labour working together with A, B or C can achieve anything and everything”.

Labour must start by being plural within, embracing Corbynites, Blairites and all points in between. And then it must be plural externally, seeking to adopt the practice and culture of a progressive alliance, not just to beat the Tories and the hard right, but govern effectively in such turbulent times. It’s going to take all progressives working together to fix this.

Look at the way the corona-crisis is panning out. Yes, it’s about the return of the state, but if it’s about the return of the British state, then it must also be about the return of the Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and local state too. Power simply has to flow down to where it is closest to people. And that new state must be both green and liberal.

Labour must learn to let go, embracing this pluralism, because the only other option now is populism. It is why the new leader has to front the essential shift to Proportional Representation, not as a silver bullet, but as a litmus test of their willingness to work with others to the benefit of the party and the country.

This is about much more than what one person does. The new leader must forge a new more open and inclusive style of collaborative leadership that doesn’t just focus on them. But here we all have a responsibility. Piling up all our hopes on a single messiah figure is a fool’s errand. We are all leaders, and must all play our part. The creation of a Good Society can only be negotiated by all of us, not imposed by any single party.

Ultimately Labour’s new leadership must show they are willing to take the big progressive gamble – to trust the people. It is the only way social-ism can ever happen.

The Labour Party has lost the last four elections. It has failed us enough. It must now step up or step out of the way.

All progressives should wish the new leader well. Few will envy them the pressures they will be under. In this enormous challenge, we should offer constructive, critical support to whoever wins and be there to help. But we should resolve to help build the foundations of a good society whether Labour is part of that or not.

As ever, in the words of Antonio Gramsci “we live without illusions without being disillusioned”.

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