I’ve been spending the last few days getting over so-called ‘campaign flu.’ A mild condition of general fatigue and flu-iness that comes after weeks of poor diet, too many cigarettes and being stuck in the back of a Transit van for 5,000 miles.
So after Gordon left Downing Street for the last time, and shepherding John round the media to pay tribute to the great man, I retired to my bed and got some sleep. It’s advice I’d give to anyone involved in the campaign. Switch off your phone, take time out and get your thoughts together.
It’s quite clear from the Jock room banter of that Downing Steet Garden presser that the ‘ConDem Nation’ coalition isn’t going to fall apart anytime soon.
Firstly if they manage to get the 55% lock through, it’ll be nigh impossible to pass a no-confidence vote. Secondly Clegg and Huhne will respectively be in charge of pushing through real political reform and representing the UK at the next climate change conference in Cancun in December.
Finally, more than a third of Lib Dems MPs are actually in Government. Think about it. Over the course of five years, Clegg could easily rotate all of them so everyone gets the chance to get their backside on a chauffeur-driven Prius.
So let’s forget about an election this Autumn. It just isn’t going to happen. That scenario has been the one and only driver for a quick Labour leadership election culminating in July.
That’s probably the reason why David Miliband was first out of the blocks on Wednesday, in spite of the fact the news cycle was dominated by the Nick and Dave show. You only get one opportunity to launch and as other commentators have said, it seemed a bit strange arguing for the ‘movement for change’ outside the House of Commons surrounded by middle-aged parliamentarians (no offence to those who were there, but we’re talking about perception.)
I remember the last leadership campaign in 1994. Margaret Beckett launched hers in the Jubiliee Room in the House of Commons. She then left through one door and John’s team came in through the other, sat at the same desk and launched theirs too.
Tony wisely left it a couple of days and made telling his members and friends in Sedgefield the focus of his launch.
I also can’t imagine any candidate would be happy to have Charlie Falconer or John Hutton’s ‘black spot’ endorsement. Perhaps they personally felt it would help build the ‘big mo.’ I’m not so sure.
But launches aside, we shouldn’t get too obsessed with dancing to the media’s tune.
And this is where David is absolutely right – go off touring the country, talking to members, activists and the general public. But candidates shouldn’t rush this. Empty your mind of pre-conceived ideas and really listen to what people have to say. This is a real opportunity not a photo opportunity.
Time and time again, immigration was one of the the big issues that came up on the doorsteps, especially in the north. Labour – rightly or wrongly – is perceived to have handled the issue badly.
There’s not enough street politics in my mind. I’m sure more politicians would like to do as John did in the campaign – climb on a bench with a microphone and debate with the public. But they worry how one heckler can be enlarged through the prism of the media. If you do put yourself into real situations, hacks will say you were ‘booed by an angry mob.’ If you choose controllable situations, you’re ‘not meeting the public.’
But remember how ‘bigotgate’ had apparently destroyed Labour’s chances and finished us in Rochdale? We went there the following day and party activists had just come back from canvassing. Only a few people mentioned Duffy and the vote was standing up. Come election night, we won Rochdale back.
So let’s not rush this contest. Every member I’ve spoken to in the last few days wants an open and genuine leadership election, not defined and dictated by the 24 hour news cycle.
Whilst we can’t get away from the fact that there will be televised debates (we had them for the last deputy leadership election and they are popular) we mustn’t let X Factor politics shape this debate.
Miliband v Miliband is admittedly a great human intertest story. But we shouldn’t allow the media to make it dominate it – we all want policies not personalities.
We also need as many candidates as possible and I really hope some of our talented female MPs put their names forward too. We don’t need to be told there’s an ‘inevitability’ as to who will be chosen. That’s our job.
A four month campaign, with national, regional, union, Young Labour and online hustings will give everyone a chance to road test manifestos, scrutinise the candidates and challenge them directly face-to-face and through social media platforms.
All the while, candidates will still need to play their part in holding the executive to account, especially since we are now the only real substantive opposition on the green benches. That too will showcase their ability.
Hopefully the NEC will agree next Tuesday to a longer timetable and we can unveil the leader at our Manchester conference.
Personally, I’d like to hear the candidates’ thoughts on how we can rebuild a mass-membership party, give members a more direct say in policymaking and how we improve organisation in constituency parties. Too many seats were lost because of poor planning by local Labour parties.
16 years on from the last leadership election and the same principle argued then is as relevant today – the politics of organisation are equally as important as the politics of ideas.
So by all means put on your trainers, limber up and do your stretches.
But let’s have marathon not a sprint.
Members will decide this election.
Not the media.