Don Brind: Why having an “electable” leader matters so much

Don Brind: Why having an “electable” leader matters so much


The great chronicler of US presidential elections, Theodore White, tells the story of a Democratic candidate for minor office in New York who complained to the local party boss that the party had issued no publicity with his name on it. Go down to the harbour, he was told. Look at the Staten Island ferry. When it comes in to dock it drags harbour garbage in its wake. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt is your Staten island ferry, ”

An “electable” leader who can boost candidates in tight races ought to be a high priority for any party – even if few modern politicians have FDR’s pulling power. In 1936, the architect of the New Deal was re-elected was more than 60% of the popular vote. He took all but two the 48 states towing behind him legions of additional Democratic candidates.

So Labour members should pick someone who the wider electorate can see as a national leader. That is if they care about the party regaining power in 2020. Many, it seems, don’t . That’s why Corbynmania is rampant. The YouGov poll suggesting a first round victory for Jeremy Corbyn brought dire warnings from Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell. Sadly, they are likely to prove counter-productive.

Corbyn’s campaign has momentum, which should be no surprise given the involvement of Simon Fletcher a veteran aide to Ken Livingstone and Ed Miliband and the self effacing Shadow Cabinet Minister Jon Trickett – dubbed by Mehdi Hassan “the most influential Labour politician you’ve probably never heard of”

    It looks as though they will deliver the leadership for Corbyn. What they haven’t done is dented the idea that he is “unelectable” – that voters at large will never see him as a potential Prime Minister.

    Corbyn himself has set out to answer that charge in the Independent: “I think I do OK. I have been elected eight times, the last time on a high turnout, with the highest ever vote with the highest ever majority.”

This is not so much answering the question as defining it away. The truth is that any long-serving MP will have won multiple elections in a system chock-a-block with safe seats. Corbyn boasts he has pushed up his personal majority. So, too, did several of the deputy leadership candidates. But their results were part of Labour’s nightmare on May 7th. Labour actually garnered an extra million votes in England — double the increase in the Tory vote. But the Tories got an extra 21 seats to Labour’s net gain of 15.

In London, I did work in a number of key seats. The night of May 7th was awful. I missed the result from Islington North but Corbyn’s triumph would have been no consolation for the defeats of great candidates like Sarah Jones in Croydon Central, Uma Kumaran in Harrow East, Sarah Sackman in Finchley and Golders Green and Will Martindale in Battersea.

These are precisely the people who need a leader who can produce a “Staten Island ferry” effect. I haven’t asked but I would be surprised if any of them thought a Corbyn leadership would produce a better result next time. I would guess the same is true of the contributors to the impressive Fabian pamphlet Never Again. Co-authored by Sally Keeble and Will Straw it gathers the reflections of defeated key seat candidates Rowena Davis, Luke Pollard, Jess Asato, Polly Billington and James Frith.

The damage done by having a leader who lacks credibility is underlined by the report of focus group research conducted by two of Labour’s outstanding former organisers John Braggins and Alan Barnard Labour’s lost voters In five marginals that Labour failed to win they spoke to lifelong Labour supporters, who had backed Gordon Brown in 2010 but who went elsewhere in May. Braggins and Barnard have sent their report to Margaret Beckett who is carrying out the official party inquiry into why Labour lost

Policy chief John Cruddas has launched his own Independent Review with YouGov polling analysed by Nick Pecorelli and David Evans of the Campaign Company. Cruddas has already authored three articles based on the research with more to come. One suggests that being anti austerity carries dangers for Labour.

  Another points to the way to winning back voters lost to Ukip. The third warns of a “growing cultural divide between the socially liberal, progressive Labour Party and its 2015 voters, and large parts of the electorate who either vote pragmatically or who are socially conservative.”

I list all this research not because any of it is definitive but to underline a point made by other commentators that Labour is about to prescribe itself a remedy in the form of a new leader while the diagnosis is still incomplete. Ed Miliband’s decision to resign immediately after the election was understandable but wrong. But we are where are.

The General Election result was complex. So too is the Corbyn surge. The two best analyses of it I have come across are from Professor David Runciman in the London Review of Books and Steve Richards in the Independent

Runciman says support for Corbyn is part of a shake-up that is happening across Europe. “If I’m right that this is part of what lies behind the Corbyn surge, then his supporters are making a mistake. The Labour Party is not a start-up. Disruption is almost certainly not what it needs. Indeed, disruption is more likely to destroy it than to revitalise it.” Corbyn, he says, lacks the experience to perform well as a leader. “Corbyn at PMQs? Corbyn handling the press lobby? Corbyn managing the shadow cabinet?” Richards picks up on Corbyn’s reference to Labour as a broad church. “To keep the broad church intact Corbyn would have to disappoint those cheering now or preside over some form of schism.”

Having started with one piece of Americans I will end with another. In the 1988 vice presidential debate Republican Dan Quayle claimed he was the same age as Kennedy when he entered the White House. It produced the famous put down by Democrat Lloyd Bentsen. “I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was my friend. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” youtube Qualyle Bentsen.

That quote came to mind when I read that in his Independent column that Corbyn’s role model as leader would be John Smith. My pastiche of Bentsen: “Jeremy, you knew John Smith. You know you are no John Smith.”
A bit of a cheap shot, I know, and perhaps there is something positive that Corbyn’s rivals ought to take from it. Smith got on well with people on the Left including Corbyn and our mutual friend Tony Banks. If they value party unity the defeated candidates need to respond positively if a victorious Corbyn reaches out to them. They have to avoid any impression of taking their ball home.

Tragically, Smith served for less than two years before his death in May 1994. If Corbyn is hinting that he would stand down without completing a full term there is hope that Labour could yet go in to 2020 with a leader who is “electable”.

Don Brind

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