This article appeared in Solidarity.
After Labour’s abysmal showing in the Newark by-election, which closely followed on its poor showing in the European elections, it is becoming increasingly clear that the party faces defeat yet again in the 2015 general election. That would mean another five years of Tory rule, something which would be a disaster for working people in this country.
There’s considerable discontent and unease in Labour’s ranks, and disappointment at Ed Miliband’s role as party leader, making the question of who should lead Labour into the election a crucial one. Yet there are very few good suggestions.
Tony Blair seems to want to return to political life, but that’s not going to happen. Gordon Brown already proved himself a completely ineffective campaigner when he lost to Cameron in 2010. Ed’s brother David has wandered off to do good work for the International Rescue Committee. There seems to be no one around to step in and provide leadership at a time when it is sorely needed.
But let’s try to imagine for just a moment what the ideal Labour leader might look like.
First of all, if Labour is to be in touch with the party’s working-class roots, to re-capture those communities from UKIP, Labour should choose someone who shares those roots, who comes out of the working class.
Second, Labour needs to rebuild its links — already quite tenuous — with the trade union movement. The 54 TUC-affiliated unions have nearly six million members, all of them potential voters, and a leader who could appeal to them specifically would do well in attracting many of them back to the party that bears their name. That leader would also need to appeal to the many millions of working people who are not currently in trade unions, and who often do not vote — the people who feel excluded, disengaged and ignored.
Third, Labour needs to understand how deeply disillusioned voters are with the political class. Its next leader shouldn’t come out of the ranks of Labour’s contingent in Westminster. Labour needs a fresh face, someone who’s not been an MP or Minister.
And finally, the time has come — indeed, it is long overdue — for Labour to have a female leader. Nearly 40 years have passed since the Conservatives accepted that a woman could lead a party (albeit with disastrous results for the country). Why has Labour in opposition and in power always been led by those who are “stale, pale and male”, as I once heard them described?
The person who I heard that from more than a decade ago was running the TUC’s innovative experiment in trade union revitalisation — the Organising Academy. Her name was Frances O’Grady and today she’s the first female general secretary of the TUC in its history.
I think she should also be first female leader of the Labour Party, and the sooner the better.
I doubt very much if Frances would want to do this.
And yet she meets all the criteria I mentioned above. She’s a committed trade unionist, on the Left, articulate, experienced and a proven leader.
If anyone could re-energize the Labour Party, she’s the one.
People who can’t bear the thought of David Cameron being re-elected Prime Minister in 2015 should be prepared to take risks, to do what’s not been done before.
That’s why Labour supporters should launch a ‘Draft Frances’ movement today.