Labour doesn’t need a ‘likeable’ leader – it needs a competent one

There should also be a discussion about how to counter the relentless hostility that will be fired at whoever becomes leader, from the Conservative press


Mark Steel
Thursday 02 January 2020 18:45 GMT
Clive Lewis says Labour should have been firmly anti-Brexit

No need to worry. “Britain sees in new year on a wave of optimism”, read The Times front page on New Year’s Eve. Despite Brexit, we’re evidently still willing to learn from other countries: our press is borrowing methods from 1935 Soviet Russia.

By April, the press will likely be telling us that 125 per cent of the population is so delighted with the progress of trade talks that millions of people are dancing around a statue of David Davis in their underwear; that the thirty-mile queue outside Dover is in fact lorry drivers so happy they’re doing a conga through Kent.

The Times explained the number “optimistic about the economy” is now 21 per cent. I expect its film critic will write of Cats: “Only 79 per cent of the audience walked out halfway through. A triumph!”

But away from all the joy, in a dark corner is the Labour Party, working out how it lost to Boris Johnson and his wave of optimism. One popular answer is that Jeremy Corbyn was hopeless. It could be argued it’s more complicated than that, as nationalist sociopaths breaking the normal rules of elections have recently won in America, Turkey, Brazil and India. But maybe Corbyn was so hopeless that he caused all those defeats as well.

Eventually, this will be given as the reason anyone loses a vote. Harry Kane will explain he didn’t win Goal of the Month, because “On the doorstep, people told me they liked my overhead scissor kick, but they couldn’t vote for me because of Jeremy Corbyn.”

This could make Labour’s problems worse, because instead of analysing the many reasons they got thrashed, they have decided that all they have to do to reverse their fortunes is to pick someone more “likeable”.

So the candidates give us solutions such as “We must rebuild trust.” This would be an important statement, if there were other candidates saying “I don’t agree, I say we should abolish trust. If someone trusts us, we should pop in for a chat, and while they’re making us a cup of tea, roll up their carpet and drive off with it in a van.”

None of them has proposed how to redress Labour’s collapse in Scotland, and whether the party has to change its attitude towards the SNP or independence. Until now, their approach seems to have been to call the SNP a bunch of arseholes, and maybe they hope this will work if they keep at it.

For example, shortly after the 2015 election, when Labour managed to drop from 50 MPs in Scotland to one, I saw a Labour member of the Scottish parliament give a speech at a public event. She began: “My message to the SNP is they are a DISGRACE, DESTROYING this country.” It is a puzzle how this doesn’t seem to have won back their lost voters.

The irony is that the Scottish method of alienating voters seems to be learned from the English method of explaining matters to foreigners: say the same thing, but louder. Labour’s manifesto for the next Scottish election will be: “LABOUR. I said LABOUR, no, not SNP, L-A-B-O-U-R. Why can’t you understand, you idiot?”

Brexit will harm UK more than EU, warns Ursula von der Leyen

Chunks of the world are literally on fire, so perhaps a part of Labour’s “period of reflection” should be spent working out how to promote policies for combatting climate change, in ways that can seem appealing in an election. Or whether Labour could campaign jointly with the Greens on some issues, and not stand against each other in areas where they split the vote and so make it easier for the Conservatives to win. Maybe they’ve worked out if climate change gets worse, it will be Devon that burns and Norfolk that drowns, and they’re Tory areas anyway.

There should also be a discussion about how to counter the relentless hostility that will be fired at whoever becomes leader, from the Conservative press, whose headlines will likely read ”Long-Bailey to introduce women-only gravity, men will be forced to float” and “Clive Lewis’s secret plan to make chlamydia compulsory”.

Maybe the party will get round to these issues eventually, but for now, it’s best to debate whether Keir Starmer will put people off in Workington because he does his tie up too tight.

It may seem distant now, but one of Corbyn’s qualities that made him relatively popular in 2017 was he seemed to answer questions honestly, and so didn’t come across like a politician. But now all the candidates appear to have forgotten that, giving answers like “We have to reach out to communities with values that reflect the valuable values we value, from Cornwall to Cornchester, from Corn-on-the-Marsh to Corntown,” even if the question was whether they watched the final of the darts.

So maybe Labour should revert to the old method of trying to beat the Tories by copying them. And the new leader should be whoever is best placed to implement a bold three-point plan for winning the next election:

  1. Publish detailed proposals for trade with Europe in a post-Brexit economy;
  2. Hand the local council’s parks and gardens budget to someone they fancy whose loft they visit;
  3. Father a child in each constituency and forget who any of them are.     

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