Alastair Meeks on his 200/1 tip to be next Labour leader.
Pitt the Elder did not lack confidence, declaring to the Duke of Devonshire: “My Lord, I am sure I can save this country, and no one else can.” Is there anyone who can save Labour? It’s a good question and it’s not at all clear that there’s an answer. The Labour party is being torn apart by a profound schism between the purist left membership and the much more centrist Parliamentary party. Jeremy Corbyn retains the confidence of the membership and is seeking to move the power base of the party from the shadow Cabinet and Parliamentary party to the membership. Talk of insurrection is in the air among dissident MPs, though no one has yet publicly suggested a viable mechanism for dethroning a leader elected by a landslide less than six months ago.
There are essentially three possible ways in which the Labour party leadership might be resolved. First, Jeremy Corbyn may cement his hold on power (possibly after an unsuccessful challenge). Secondly, his party opponents might successfully oust him. Thirdly, he might be replaced by consent (possibly with some degree of coercion of some of the interested parties) by a unity candidate.
Both the first and the second possibilities would almost inevitably lead to further seismic upheaval within the Labour party. The Parliamentary party is not going to become reconciled to Jeremy Corbyn and the membership are not going to accept a betrayal by the Parliamentary party. Both of those options look utterly disastrous for Labour in the short to medium term.
This is recognised all round, so pressure will build for a suitable unity candidate. Such a candidate would need to be someone who the grassroots respect as one of their own and who the Parliamentary party respect as being in touch with the political realities of persuading the electorate. By definition, such a person would need to be a recognised public figure with a track record at the highest levels of the party. They would need to be seen as a heavyweight and they would need to be willing to undertake the job.
The obvious starting point is to look at those current Labour MPs who have served in the Cabinet. Labour only left office six years ago, so that should give a substantial pool, right? Wrong. By my count, there are only 12 current MPs who served as full Cabinet ministers in a Labour government: Margaret Beckett, Hilary Benn, Ben Bradshaw, Nick Brown, Andy Burnham, Liam Byrne, Yvette Cooper, Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson, Ed Miliband, Andrew Smith and Stephen Timms.
Stop and consider that for a minute. Labour still has well over 200 MPs, many of fairly long standing. But those who achieved the most in the last government have by and large deserted the field. No wonder Labour is in so much trouble; it has suffered a serious brain drain.
So who among these contenders might be a suitable unity candidate? Ben Bradshaw, Nick Brown, Andrew Smith and Stephen Timms, excellent though they all are, simply do not have the profile for this role. Hilary Benn is completely unacceptable to the membership as a unity candidate. Harriet Harman’s failure to oppose tax credit cuts probably makes her unacceptable too. Liam Byrne forever ruled himself out with six words in a letter: “I’m afraid there is no money”.
Margaret Beckett would actually be an excellent choice of unity candidate on many grounds – she is a former deputy leader, has already been acting leader and nominated Jeremy Corbyn for the leadership last year. If the aim was to remain in contention rather than to win, she could fulfil the same function that Michael Howard managed in 2005 for the Conservatives. But I discount her on the ground of age – she would be 77 by the time of the 2020 election. At the risk of sounding ageist, that is surely just too old for the role now.
That leaves four MPs with Cabinet level experience: Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Alan Johnson and Ed Miliband. Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper stood against Jeremy Corbyn and lost crushingly. While both are conceivable unity candidates, particularly Andy Burnham who has served in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow Cabinet, the fact of their crushing defeat probably rules them out.
So you can see why Alan Johnson’s name keeps coming up as a unity candidate whenever the Labour party lacks confidence in its leader. But he keeps declining the opportunity no matter how hard he has been pressed to make a move. He did not move against Gordon Brown and he did not move against Ed Miliband. That’s not the track record of a man who is hungry for the role. He’s probably also a bit too rightwing to satisfy the Labour party membership, who are going to be very suspicious of anyone who takes over from Jeremy Corbyn.
Which leaves Ed Miliband. Well, why not? He’s led the party so he knows what’s involved. He managed to keep it united and was inclusive. The membership respect him even if he is a little rightwing for their tastes. The MPs know he understands electoral realities. Alright, he lost the last election but given how things have gone since then Labour can’t afford to be too picky. When he stood down, Labour were looking to find someone who could lead them back towards government. Right now they need someone that’s going to hold them all together. Ed Miliband has shown that he can do that job. He’s probably their best choice to do it again now.
Would he even want the job again? Probably not, but sometimes needs must. I was allowed £2 by SkyBet at 200/1 to back him as next Labour leader. That’s £2 I’ll probably never see again, but if Labour is to unite around a consensus candidate of stature, the options are very limited indeed.