Labour leadership: Jess Phillips drops out of contest

Political leadership is hard - as the Labour candidates are suddenly finding out

Jess Phillips quit the Labour leadership contest after admitting she hates many elements of the role. It's a hard job, but someone's got to do it. The question is who?

Penny Andrews@pennyb
Wednesday 22 January 2020 12:11

The Labour leadership hustings for members aren’t a perfect format, but nor are most of the media appearances or public events you have to take part in as leader of a political party, never mind the day to day work of being a hate figure for many.

After floundering and writing whole articles about how much she hates that now, Jess Phillips announced she was quitting the race. Is it because she now gets why Corbyn felt “daunted” at the idea of being PM and Miliband wouldn’t run back to being leader?

At least Lisa Nandy, who also says she doesn’t like hustings, can manage within the format and with difficult questions from Andrew Neil. Televised hustings will be of more interest and a different format, and we saw Jo Swinson bumbling through those to the detriment of her personal ratings.

The thing is, condensing ideas and policies to endlessly repeated soundbites and answering questions asked in bad faith, where answers are clipped to mock you, is what you have to do when you are on the front bench. Acting Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey probably didn’t think the papers would lead with him saying the Lib Dems’ failures in the election were Jeremy Corbyn’s fault. But then, he did say it. That’s going to be the story. As are journalists turning up at your house every day, however much you ask them not to, and everyone you have ever wound up saying horrible things about you online.

What’s the appeal of being leader then? We are all backseat drivers and armchair managers, talking about what we would do if we were in charge of a party or the country. When we think either or both is being run badly, we start shouting at the telly and on the internet, and backbench and frontbench MPs alike start thinking they could do it better and be more popular to boot.

I think everyone underestimates how hard this job is. And then by how many magnitudes harder it is if you move from shadowing a role or the prime minister to the real job. Anyone can snipe from the sidelines and say they could beat the boss – leading is difficult. Decisions that matter are more difficult than critique and chat about values. That is how it should be.

Sometimes you will have to do things you don’t want to do. The right wing press, which dominates the British media, will always be against the Labour leadership and the Tories will always play on easy mode in the UK.

Outsiders and outriders kicking the current leadership or government are popular across the board, so Rory Stewart did well out of that and Neil Coyle and Wes Streeting (as well as Phillips before her leadership bid) will always be a go to for journalists and broadcasters looking for a snippy comment. Ian Austin and John Mann were also good value on that score before and during the 2019 election, and the European Research Group have made a sport out of it for years.

When it’s your own weaknesses and inconsistencies being highlighted, going on the Today programme seems less like a fun game, hence the current government making a game out of avoiding it.

Decisions are hard. Really hard. I saw current Labour leadership frontrunner Keir Starmer speak on Friday night to a packed Leeds Minster. It was okay. People’s reactions to him were more interesting than he was, including Remainers wanting him to talk more about life after Brexit. But what he did say, other than boasting he had led thousands of staff as director of Public Prosecutions, was that he had to make hundreds of hard decisions all the time.

Decisions are conflict. Corbyn struggled with it and put people around him who were better at it. Boris Johnson likewise. Tony Blair was “scared” of the responsibility to start with, but realised that being PM means every decision, even very popular ones, hurts some people in favour of others. New Labour got a lot more right and a lot more wrong than war, but the beginning of the end was when Blair went against his original instincts and did what he firmly believed and wanted to do, like Iraq, despite that decision not being popular at all.

As leader or PM, you can’t be across everything. But who do you outsource important jobs to and can it undermine your authority? Jeremy Corbyn’s three Ms (Unite boss Len McClusky, leader of the opposition chief of staff Karie Murphy and communications director Seumas Milne) and the arguments between them and others close to the leader have been a rich source of conflict and anti-Labour briefing since 2015. Dominic Cummings appears to have almost magical status for anyone covering Boris Johnson and the goings-on at Number 10.

It’s hard to tell who Starmer or Rebecca Long-Bailey would choose as their right-hand people and whether it would make their jobs easier or harder, but stories are already emerging about Jon Lansman’s role as fixer for the latter.

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So who enjoys it anyway? Phillips said in an interview with Alastair Campbell that prime minister appealed more than leader of the Labour Party. I think a lot of the contenders would say that. But do they know what it would be like and would they hate it? Do we even know if Boris Johnson enjoys it? Cameron self-evidently did, as well as thinking and even saying that he would be good at it. It helps to have a sense of mission about what you’re going to do as leader.

“Get Brexit Done” is a simple message, and goes down better than “Get Power For Me” (probably closer to Johnson’s truth). I wish the leadership contenders for Labour could show us more than “beat the Tories” as a goal, and demonstrated a hunger for the harder tasks.

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