Thursday, 9 October 2014

Leadership challenge? You can’t be serious

It is always a little unwise to make predictions, as us bloggers occasionally find some time later, to our shame and embarrassment.

But perhaps we can venture one now. If there is a silly season within conference season, it is surely within Lib Dem conference. And this year, a few MPs and journalists have used its abject pointlessness as an excuse to take a break from serious politics.

And, indeed, from reality altogether: they have convinced themselves that a Labour leadership challenge is in the air, as these pieces from the
Telegraph and the Mail show.

Only it’s not. Or, at least, it’s incredibly unlikely.

Oh, that’s not to say that some aren’t thinking about it, some even vaguely seriously. It’s always good to check where one’s political stock is, and a dip in the polls is an attractive time to do so.

But there are a lot of good reasons why it is merely fanciful thinking – more a crying into one’s beer in a Manchester hotel bar than a serious, credible campaign briefing.

First, history. Unlike the Tories, Labour is the anti-nasty party; one which gives a sometimes annoying level of benefit-of-the-doubt. It does not generally dump leaders before they have had a chance to lose an election (in fact, it sometimes doesn’t even dump them afterwards, as the 1987 election taught us, even if it really should).

Second, if a leadership challenge has not happened by a half-year before the election, it is a particularly dumb time to try and have one. No-one has time to put together a hole-free policy program in that time, which reflects their own personal stamp.

Then you would have to have a snap leadership election which would likely take at least two months to organise (the last snap election did, after John Smith’s death), with Christmas likely in the middle, which means it probably wouldn’t happen until January, leaving around three months until the start of the short campaign.

Even the customarily-ruthless Tories would think twice about this one: Thatcher and Duncan Smith were both done in by the “men in grey suits” a full two years before the election. Oh, and we might also reflect that the only party in recent history which memorably changed its leader at the last minute was the Australian Labor Party. That
didn’t end well.

Third, the process requires some support to be built. Party politics, it is always worth remarking, is different from the politics of Westminster. To understand it requires a little understanding of party process, history and a little context which breathless news journalists, eager for a story, might occasionally lack. It’s not just about the gossip in the Tea Room.

Under the current process (the
new one is clearly not ready yet) one needs sufficient support from members and unions as well as the PLP. Only a handful of MPs are in that category in the first place.

Fourth, even if the first three points don’t convince you, look at the specific circumstances. The previous hopefuls who lost in 2010, bar one, lost by a lot. And that one is not even an MP, apart from probably not being remotely interested in repaying a brotherly “favour”. The only other possibles who have a little support are too young, too old, standing down or not interested. Johnson and Darling, for example, are not going to go now, if they didn’t before.

Fifth, paradoxically, the polls do not exactly scream “now’s the time” either; they are too close. While Miliband’s personal ratings continue dire and may easily do for him by next May, Labour has still been consistently ahead in the voting intention polls until the last week (and those two counterexamples may yet turn out to be rogue polls). One suspects that, even with a more popular leader, a last-minute change might be as likely to make the overall numbers blip down, and let Cameron in, as up. It’s too delicate.

Sixth and finally, who then is left who might decide to put up, under those circumstances? Probably only someone who is terribly self-deluded, or someone with nothing to lose. And suppose they did: if Labour then lost and polled worse than Labour is doing now, that unfortunate MP would forever bear the stigma of “the chancer that lost it for us”. Even those two remaining, outlier categories would probably blanch at that.

No, to misquote John Major, it is time to shut up, not put up.

Whatever good it might have done a couple of years ago, a challenge now will not help Labour win. You hopefuls should have gone a long time ago, if you were going to.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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