Comment: Labour must put the team back in leadership

One of the things missing from the debate so far is a recognition that a leader does not exist in isolation


At yesterday’s first leadership hustings at Progress Annual Conference, the declared (and in one case undeclared) candidates had the first opportunity to set out their stalls. Only one commented – in the context of a question on how to deal with failing schools – that leadership involves a team.

One of the things missing from the debate about the Labour leadership contest so far is a recognition that a leader does not exist in isolation. When making our choice, we need to consider what it was about our leadership that led to Labour winning in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

Undeniably, having a leader in Tony Blair who a broad cross section of the population wanted to vote for was crucial. However, the leadership during our most recent period in government worked principally because it didn’t rely just on one individual. It worked because strengths and weaknesses of the team at the top balanced each other out and reflected a range of interests and range of views across the Labour party, the Labour movement and the country.

Could Tony Blair have worked on his own without Gordon Brown or without John Prescott? Even if we had the occasional (sometimes very public) hiccup, would we have had the impact we needed to win without the team around the leadership – both in terms of politicians and party staffers? I genuinely don’t think so.

Our debate and the decisions we make as a party over the next few weeks and months should be based on a wider understanding of what we need from the party’s leadership team. We need the trinity of leader, deputy and shadow chancellor to work and we need the people around them to include the next generation’s unelected party greats like Alistair Campbell and Peter Mandelson. Like them or loathe them, individually or collectively, the combination worked.

Let’s reflect on and be proud of the fact we are a broad church. We may all be determined to move on from past divisions (and we should), however if one section of the movement feels unrepresented in the leadership team, we will have a problem holding our party together until 2020, let alone winning the next election.

I want a leader and a leadership team that can negotiate a course between two (or more) views and arrive at a pragmatic but ambitious and bold solution. We need a united party; but this doesn’t mean to the exclusion of debate. Arriving at strong policies that work will depend on it.

I want us to appeal to the centre ground where we clearly failed to win votes and to have a sense of where we have come from within the Labour movement and the values on which the party is founded. We also lost support in our heartlands, as those MPs and candidates with strong UKIP showing in their patches will know.

This is why both those claiming there-is-no-such-thing-as-left-and-right-anymore and those still sitting comfortably in what they think of as the left and the right wings of the party can claim simultaneously that it is wrong to say Ed Miliband was too left-wing, or not left-wing enough to win. The bigger problem was that we weren’t good enough to win.

If any part of the Labour Party claims a greater right to the leadership, or one wing of the party gains all elected and selected positions in the leadership team, we will not be a party for the whole party let alone the whole country and we will lose in 2020.

I do not want our next successful and charismatic leader – our male or female ‘Tony Blair’ – without the balancing and challenging influence of our next ‘John Prescott’ and the gravitas and credibility of the next ‘Gordon Brown’.

That said, we cannot and should not try to exactly recreate the leadership team of 1997.

Nor should we be too London-centric, or too northern, too male, or too cliquey. The qualification for who gets on or who gets jobs in the leadership teams and front benches cannot be who you eat at dinner parties with (or if you eat at dinner parties at all). People with too similar views, backgrounds or life experience to each other are unlikely to provide sufficient challenge to each other or the mix of views or ideas to produce the ambitious policies and vision we need.

As a diverse party, wanting to represent the whole of our country, we need diversity and meritocracy at the heart of our leadership.  I will only vote for leadership and deputy leadership candidates who I believe understand and accept this and are committed to deliver it.

By 2020 we will be a generation down the line. However, we do need to think about why the dynamics of the team at the top worked in 1997 and beyond. The tensions, differences and diversity within the Leadership team supported, challenged and enhanced the success of our Leader and our Party and contributed to the Labour Party’s three successive election victories.

Fiona Twycross AM is Labour’s London Assembly economic spokesperson. Follow her on Twitter

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