Friday, September 03, 2010

Reflections on Labour's leadership election

I'm not doing much here except steering people towards a couple of other people's posts on the subject that I thought were rather splendid. Paul has an excellent piece here striking a pessimistic note over the whole process:
"We do need a leadership contest. We need the concept of leadership - as it is currently understood - to be contested and defeated. New Labour's approach to leadership was based upon a crude and self-serving notion of what was possible within the confines of a hostile media. It involved everybody conniving in the pretense that a single line that united the party could be pushed out to a credible media."
I also particularly enjoyed his dismissal of the pose that young Ed has been striking:
"And if anyone really imagines that Ed Milliband's pitch as 'the left candidate' is any more than a bit of short-term chessmanship, I hope they will have a stern word with themselves next time they look in the mirror."
Chris Dillow also argues that there is little in the way of real differences between the candidates to choose between, making this a 'low stakes' election. Here even the relatively small differences that one might identify in relation to the whole business of deficit reduction will be ironed out by events outside the candidates' control:
"The next Labour leader will - at best - only determine policy after 2015. And in this context, Balls’ words are less important. Let’s say he’s right, and that Osborne’s deficit fetishism does clobber the economy and - in doing so - leave a big deficit. It will then be clear to everyone that a change in policy is needed. Whoever the leader is will therefore adopt a Balls-style policy - because this will be the only option. Balls’ support now for such a policy will make him look perspicacious - though no more so than any other Keynesian - but it does not greatly affect the course of the next Labour government."
They are in substance both right, in my view. I can't recall there being a Labour election with so little at stake. Just one quibble though: while we could all agree that policy shouldn't be over-personalized and that there's little to distinguish these characters on policy anyway, it still matters. It can be expressed by putting Chris's first point in the negative: "What is the probability of Labour losing under your preferred candidate, relative to the probability under your second preference?" I appreciate this is depressingly negative but it still makes a substantial difference. There are some people you just cannot imagine winning under any circumstances. Brown (admittedly not under good circumstances) was like this. So was Michael Foot. I'd argue Kinnock was as well. For the Tories it was William Hague and even more disastrously with IDS.

What all of the above have in common is that they were very much creatures of their parties - and the worst of them the very incarnation of their deepest divisions, as was the case with IDS. Here I'm afraid Alex Massie is right: people are suspicious of party politics at the moment so you have to have a leader that can be distinguished from their party. Paul is right to find this shuffle at the top of a pyramid not only unsatisfactory but probably unsustainable in the long-run - but this is where were are now and in these circumstances any party that mistakes the selectorate for the electorate and chooses a candidate in their own image is going to lose. It's as simple as that.
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