The tricky business of ousting a Labour leader


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There is no practical guide to how to sack a leader of the Labour Party, because it has not been done since 1935.

The last leader publicly driven out of office was 76-year-old George Lansbury, a pacifist, who was humiliated by the big unions at the 1935 party conference when he tried to block a motion calling for sanctions against Mussolini. Even in 1983, as Labour careered towards its worst post-war electoral defeat, the elderly Michael Foot stayed in post, unchallenged. Only one Labour MP, Gerald Kaufman, told him to his face that he ought to resign.

Neil Kinnock was made to run for re-election after Labour’s defeat in the 1987 election, but his only challenger was Tony Benn, who had no realistic chance of winning.

Tony Blair was under greater pressure than either Foot or Kinnock because he had an ambitious and determined rival who wanted his job. He might have chosen a later date for his resignation if he had not had Gordon Brown’s people plotting against him. Brown then found himself under threat from Blair’s old supporters, some of whom went public in calling on him to go, but their putative candidate, David Miliband, never summoned the will to take the Prime Minister on.

The Labour rule book is no more help than history to anyone wanting to oust a Labour leader this close to a general election. If the leader refuses to go quietly – as Ed Miliband is likely to do – anyone challenging him would need the signatures of 20 per cent of the parliamentary party – that is a minimum of 52 MPs. Then, ludicrously, the rule book says the decision would have to wait until the next annual party conference, five months after the general election.

The only hope for any plotters would be for a senior delegation to walk into Miliband’s office and tell him that his time is up. But even if he could be persuaded to resign, all that would achieve immediately would be to install Harriet Harman as temporary leader, unless she can be induced to go too.

If both went, the party’s national executive would be able to choose a new leader from the Shadow Cabinet, but even that contingency is made complicated by the rule book, which says there would have to be a postal ballot to confirm the choice, and it would only be necessary for a rival to secure the signatures of 33 Labour MPs to turn it into a drawn-out contest.