Steve Richards: Opposition leader – a hell of a job

It is not fashionable to cite Brown as a model but what he did for Labour's economic policy after 1992 was a real achievement, which a new leader must now repeat
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The Labour leadership contest is attracting limited media attention and for good reason. The coalition is in place and will probably last a full term. There will be internal tensions within the two governing parties and moments of near terminal friction. That is nothing new. There are such moments within single governing parties. Nick Clegg is a persuasive advocate and will see off the dissenters in his party, probably enhancing his authority each time he does. There is enough in David Cameron's agenda to please his right wing, which will stir but not bite. The next election is a long way off and therefore the Labour candidates battling it out seem irrelevant partly because, at this early stage, they almost are. The winner will struggle to make waves at first.

But make waves the winner must if Labour is to have a chance of winning again. The scale of the task is such that the victorious candidate must combine a formidable array of qualities to avoid the fate of William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, two decent politicians who failed to get anywhere near power as leaders. Instead they discovered that early failings made the job a form of political hell.

As was the case with the Conservatives in 1997, a contest is under way in the immediate aftermath of Labour's defeat. I can understand why Gordon Brown wanted to leave the stage immediately. He would have found being a temporary leader of the opposition more unbearable than his period as Prime Minister, which was not a bundle of laughs. Still, for Labour, the suddenness of the contest has few upsides. Candidates are breathing for the first time away from the stifling leadership of Blair/Brown or Brown alone. They would have benefited from being tested as senior, dominant figures in a shadow cabinet under a transitional leader. Instead they make the leap from ministers partly defined by previous leaders to aspiring prime minister. One of them needs to prove very quickly that they have what it takes for what is, in some ways, the most difficult job in British politics in the glare of a media that will allow no room for public error. Hague never recovered from wearing a baseball cap and failing to emote when Princess Diana died.

Oddly for such a demanding job, qualifications are vague. The lack of formal criteria does not mean they do not exist. They do and they are daunting. Indeed one of the qualifications is to recognise the epic scale of the ascent.

In recent times only three leaders of the opposition have won an election with an overall majority, Ted Heath in 1970, Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Tony Blair in 1997. Most fail in their attempt to reach the peak and Heath needed two attempts.

Labour's next leader faces a more daunting challenge than the trio who managed to win outright. The political landscape is transformed as a result of the new centre-right coalition, two parties united in their support for social and economic liberalism. I noted the new Chief Secretary, Danny Alexander, nodding enthusiastically during George Osborne's speech in the Commons on Tuesday, not a hint of doubt in his expression as the Chancellor outlined his plans for Canadian-style cuts in a country far less equipped to cope with the consequences than Canada was in the 1990s. The current dynamics are closer to the 1980s when the SDP in effect became part of the informal anti-Labour alliance that enabled Margaret Thatcher to win a series of landslide victories.

After Gordon Brown's failure to connect with the public, there is an obvious need for Labour's next leader to have the necessary presentational skills. That is a pre-condition to success and not enough in itself. I recall Brown noting privately that, as Prime Minister, he could not find the language to convey what he was trying to do, as if this was an optional extra. It is not.

But such necessary skills will not bring about success unless they are accompanied by a clear analysis of how to beat the coalition and, in particular, what form Labour's economic policy will take between now and the next election. It is not fashionable these days to cite Brown as a model, but what he did in relation to Labour's economic policy after the party's fourth election defeat in 1992 was a significant achievement, starting from an even more impossible position than the next Labour leader will do. From the beginning he ruthlessly understood what was required politically to make Labour trusted on the economy, and over time, with the help of others, fleshed out policies that met the essential political objectives.

Now there is a fair amount of space for the next leader to occupy, more than after Labour's defeat in 1992. The coalition has no clear policies for economic growth. The speed and scale of cuts, along with the hyperbolic statements that accompany them, could lead to a second recession much worse than the first. But the questions Cameron/Osborne are asking about the role and purpose of the state are pertinent and represent the biggest challenge for Labour's victorious candidate. Blair and Brown were nervous about any debate relating to the state out of fear they would be seen as old Labour. There were also deep and important differences between the two of them over the issue that rarely surfaced in public and remains unresolved.

The issue cannot be avoided any longer. The Conservatives and the Clegg wing of the Liberal Democrats are united in their wariness of the state. They will find that their approach undermines some of the objectives they sincerely hold and will discover also that, even if they devolve responsibilities to others, those agencies will want funding from the state. The moment the state gives away taxpayers' money it takes an unavoidable interest in how it is spent.

Nonetheless, defining a role for the state that is distinct from the coalition, popular and credible, will be a mammoth task. Neil Kinnock told me soon after he had resigned: "I like my politics raw but the reality is elections are won on the centre ground." Moving the centre ground to the left of the coalition is achievable, but not straightforward when facing two parties dancing to the same tunes.

If a leader is able to do this in a way that is clear, carries the Labour Party and has wider appeal, he or she must show skill at the despatch box in the Commons, a forum which will increase in importance over the coming years. Outwitting David Cameron, who seems entirely at ease in his post and acting as if he had won a commanding landslide, will not be easy. At the same time Labour's new leader must perform with style and wit at key moments such as the annual conference. Which of the candidates can bring a sense that Labour is back in the game on the Tuesday afternoon of the party's conference in September, when he or she will make the keynote speech? A single discordant note, a public flop and the victor will be heading for Hague terrain.

Tony Blair was a masterful leader in opposition. Blair inherited a party that was ahead in the polls and facing a disintegrating Tory government. In order to be a winner, Gordon Brown's successor will need to be at least as good. Apart from that, the job could not be easier.