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Does Labour’s leader have to be prime minister designate?

leaderIn less than two years time we will have a new US President. We don’t even know who the candidates are yet. We can speculate but we don’t know.  We also don’t know who will run for French President in 2017 or German Chancellor the same year.

In Britain, Labour has just had a shock election result – beaten by the SNP comprehensively in Scotland, and the Tories in England — or was it a peeling of Labour voters to Green and UKIP?  The first thing Labour is being asked to do is elect a new leader with a single premise: be the Labour Party candidate for Prime Minister in 2020.

We are in new political territory, procedural as well as psephological. We have a fixed term parliament – and with an overall majority for a single party government, there will be no snap election. And further David Cameron let slip he won’t be running in 2020 either.

These circumstances merit a fundamental re appraisal of the way Labour does British politics – including the default position that the leader is a Prime Minister candidate. Ed Miliband has regrettably resigned, and his decision must be respected. But Harriet Harman has led the party before with obvious effectiveness and competence and she can do it again.

She can seek nomination for leader on the following basis: to lead opposition to this government in parliament and in the country but not to seek to be Prime Minister in her 70s (she will turn 70 in July 2020).

Will that lead the Labour Party rudderless without a fixed candidate for Prime Minister? It could, and it’s a psychological shift, but our current modus operandi for leadership elections is bad politics. David Cameron has said he won’t run in 2020, why can’t our leader of the opposition?  And Harriet assuming the leadership still requires an election for deputy leader which can be a healthy debate about the party’s direction in the immediate aftermath of defeat.

Of course such a proposal is predicated on Harriet Harman being willing to lead the Labour Party for the medium term, and given she is not re standing as deputy leader, she may well not be willing. The principle of not choosing a Prime Minister designate remains a credible proposal, and comparative politics suggests it deserves further attention. So who else could lead the Labour Party for most of the rest of the decade?

One obvious candidate is shadow cabinet minister Jon Trickett, an experienced MP of twenty years, who understands Labour’s base and has articulated a clear understanding of where Labour lost votes under Blair and Brown. In many ways he is politically the natural successor to Ed Miliband, though some will say he, like Harriet, is too old to lead Britain into the 2020s. The problem with that closing down of such potential is we disregard the political leadership that is needed now.

The most important thing for Labour now is to revive its crusading spirit and its sense of moral purpose by vigorous opposition to this government and its programme – the abolition of the Human Rights Act, the re introduction of fox hunting, the privatisation of the NHS and the decimation of social security and local government. As part of that campaigning Labour needs to demonstrate what it stands for as a party, in London, in Wales, in local government and yes in Scotland too. That requires an experienced leader and a focused and determined movement – not the premature fashioning of a popular persona for an election in 2020.

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