Half-time team talk for Labour leadership candidates

Now for a half-time team talk for the Labour leadership campaign teams: “You are out on your feet and fear of making a mistake is encouraging you to play it safe.” Candidates and campaign managers spent enough time with each other travelling the country and in Labour’s sweaty war room during the general election, but the pep talk has a familiar ring to it...

Now for a half-time team talk for the Labour leadership campaign teams: “You are out on your feet and fear of making a mistake is encouraging you to play it safe.” Candidates and campaign managers spent enough time with each other travelling the country and in Labour’s sweaty war room during the general election, but the pep talk has a familiar ring to it: “Stay focused. It’s a marathon not a sprint. Just 44 more hustings to go.” But the truth is, Labour’s leadership election is only the political equivalent of the semi-final.

The crowd of political commentators are beginning to jeer the candidates’ lacklustre performances at hustings. Polly Toynbee is imploring the Labour hierarchy to:

“Step in and do something about this miserably unenlightening process: it leaves audiences none the wiser, the wider public disengaged, and good candidates wretchedly constrained from performing their best.”

But ‘the Labour hierarchy’ (acting leader Harriet Harman? general secretary Ray Collins?) are the caretaker managers. The campaign teams and candidates themselves have to seize the agenda. By the strength of their common endeavor, they can achieve more than they can achieve alone. If they collectively decide not to turn out for some of the hustings, they could create the time and space for events to lay out their own agendas and converse with voters, not just appeal to members.

As the Guardian’s political veteran, Mike White explains today:

“The candidates face the classic dilemma of politicians running for party office. To enthuse activists who are in an ‘oppose, oppose, oppose’ mood, they risk offending the wider electorate – whose votes they may need soon if the coalition collapses quickly.”

But the candidates need to show their leadership qualities – rather than assert them – by developing a new Labour narrative, a defining ‘big idea’ and a credible alternative of change to the coalition agenda that no one voted for.

As Mary Riddell argues today:

“If ever there was a moment for Labour’s rebirth, this is it. The C2 voters who walked away will bear the brunt of Conservative thrift, the once-Blairite middle classes are contemplating the scrapheap, and Lib Dem supporters are appalled that Nick Clegg has become the Trojan horse for Tory cuts.”

Which of the candidates will gamble by seizing this agenda and win over members by appealing to voters?

The media bear a burden of responsibility for this. As Riddell admits:

“It’s not that the candidates aren’t working hard. Exhausted and embattled, they are eager to avoid the one thing that would electrify the media – a good old spat, preferably identifying fratricidal tendencies in the Milibands.”

But if the ‘good old spat’ is about policy and not personality, the party will emerge stronger and more united. If Labour can’t have an open debate about policy and ideas immediately after the election, the left will be stuck with an old, out of touch agenda as the country moves on and leaves the party behind.

When White sums up by saying, “in difficult times Labour is looking for a leader who will decide where it should be led,” he exposes his elder statesman contacts book. He’s clearly not hanging out with the new 2010 intake of Labour MPs. They are not tired. They are champing at the bit. But they are also loyal and have not yet started briefing lobby journalists. They have lots of ideas about where Labour should be heading but they are in an enforced ‘time out’ while they wait for the party to decide on which leader they are to follow.

Labour needs to use this post-election period to get ahead of a few debates. Demographic change? Britain’s aging population? The pensions crisis? Climate change? Sustainable economic growth? Employment rights? English identity? Localism and devolution? As well as credible answers to the questions of today – namely deficit reduction, welfare reform, electoral reform – Labour needs a narrative about the kind of tomorrow they can offer voters.

There is only one thing for it… bench the famous five so they can come back stronger and sharper. Yes, it’s time for an ice hockey style ‘shift change’. Labour’s 1st line of Abbott, Balls, Burnham, Miliband and Miliband are going to be replaced by a fresh, hungry and new 2nd line, as Demos hosts the first ‘Hustings of Ideas’ next Tuesday. Douglas Alexander, Hazel Blears, Kelvin Hopkins, Sadiq Khan and Kerry McCarthy will debate policy, not personality.

Open to all, members and non-members alike, this hustings will not confine participants to one minute opening statements or insist that everyone speaks on every subject. Most importantly, the leadership campaigns will be forced to listen, with audience reaction and interaction guaranteed.

It’s time to change the debate and open up Labour to a discussion of what it means to be on the left in today’s ‘new politics’ and what the left can offer the electorate for a better tomorrow.

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