Labour needs a new leader – and not one of the usual suspects

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.


5 Comments on "Labour needs a new leader – and not one of the usual suspects"

  1. Excellent idea Eric. I have cross-posted your article!

  2. Jeremy Green | 08/06/2014 at 16:35 |

    Well it’s worth a try.

  3. I’m afraid I find this analysis is so wrong in so many ways.

    First of all, you yourself admit that Frances would not want to do this. Leading the trade union movement and leading the Labour Party are fundamentally different roles (I’ve worked for both wings of the movement) and she has shown no inclination to change roles (compared, for instance, to Alan Johnson when he was General Secretary of the CWU).

    Second, it is constitutionally very difficult. A leader of a political party which aspires to take office has to have its leader in Parliament. Since the 1960s, such a person has always been a Member of the House of Commons rather than an unelected member of the House of Lords. Theoretically such a person could become an MP first and then go for the leadership. He or she would have to give up their current job – and Frances has spend a lifetime working up to the position she now holds – and then find a vacancy (pressure someone to resign from a safe seat?), all the time admitting that what they really wanted was the party leadership which is not actually vacant (astonishing arrogance and manna for the media). All this to be done in a matter of months before the next General Election campaign begins. No way.

    Third, Frances O”Grady would not necessarily make a better Opposition leader than Miliband. The Tories and their media supporters would savage her for lacking any Ministerial experience and being controlled by the trade union barons – both electoral kryptonite.

    Fourth, it is not necessary. It is by no means certain that Labour faces defeat in 2015. Currently Labour still has a small lead in the polls and the party has not yet announced the result of its policy review. There is private polling evidence that Labour is doing better in key marginals than in the nation at large.

    The likelihood that UKIP will do well and the Lib Dems will do disasterously immensely complicates the picture compared to 2010. In a different type of three-way split (especially if more Tory than Labour voters go for UKIP and more former Lib Dem supporters go for Labour than Tory), some seats that were previously safe Tory could become Labour marginals.

    Finally, you are too hard on Ed Miliband. Opposition is tough whoever you are. Miliband is decent, respected and intelligent and, with sound policies and a good campaign, could lead Labour to the largest number of seats, even if an overall majority seems unlikely.

    Government is very different from Opposition. As Prime Minister, Miliband could prove better than as a Leader of the Opposition. Once upon a time, people used to call Tony Blair ‘Bambi’.

    Of course, Frances O’Grady is an impressive individual and, after a Labour victory next year, could be made a Labour Minister sitting in the Lords.

  4. Last year I was coming back from Tolpuddle, I was waiting on the platform for the train back to Waterloo. I had cycled to a rail station in a small village. It wad baking hot day. Frances came onto the platform and asked if this was the right platform for the train back to London. I struck up a discussion with her and did not gain the sense she was on the left of the Labour party and she was very supportive of Ed Miliband. I got onto the train with my bike. Frances proceeded down the train, I prresume to the first class carriage! I don’t think she would challenge for the Labour leadership. She is a very uninspring and dull speaker, even a worse performer than Ed. Let’s face it Labour will be very luckly to win the next election, why, not beause they have a terrible leader but beause their policies are simply ‘austerity lite’ and will not inspire and motivate working people to turn out and vote. Nick Long Lewisham Unite.

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