Labour Shortage: Leadership in Britain's Ruling Party

By Guha, Keshava | Harvard International Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Labour Shortage: Leadership in Britain's Ruling Party


Guha, Keshava, Harvard International Review


Bill Clinton may have claimed the title of "comeback kid" as his own, but in the art of comebacks, the former US President is no match for Peter Mandelson, Britain's new First Secretary of State. In his three decades in public life, Lord Mandelson has suffered all of the vicissitudes of politics and has made several career-threatening mistakes. Written off in 1998 and 2001 as having no future in the Labour Party, Mandelson is now routinely described as the most powerful man in Britain. Harriet Harman, who as Labour's deputy leader shares duties with Mandelson as Prime Minister Gordon Brown's number two, is another political survivor. Regularly ridiculed by the media and the Conservative opposition for her alleged lack of understanding of policy, Harman has used her popularity with grassroots Labour voters and women to win a tough deputy leadership contest in 2007, positioning herself as the staunchest advocate of female voters.

What, then, does the resurgence of Mandelson and Harman mean for the Labour Party? The mere fact that Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson, and Harriet Harman are currently seen as the three most influential members of the government is a savage indictment of the party's future. These three politicians are all of an earlier generation of Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) that cut their political teeth while finding a way to reinvent the party in the face of Thatcherism in the 1980s. Their continued prominence suggests that the "new" Labour generation, MPs and ministers predominantly in their thirties and forties (with the exception of Alan Johnson, the home secretary), have failed to deliver as leaders.

The question of Labour Party leadership is immensely important because of the seeming eventuality of a Labour defeat in next spring's general election. An early September YouGov/Daily Telegraph survey of voting intentions had the Conservatives at 40 percent, Labour at 27 percent, and the Liberal Democrats at 18 percent. The Conservatives have maintained a double-digit lead for well over a year, and if reflected in a general election, the numbers would mean a landslide defeat for Labour. Apart from a public lack of confidence in Brown, Labour has also suffered from the growth of the Scottish National Party--with Scotland being one of the party's traditional bases and Brown's home--as well as the success of smaller parties in general. Last June's European Parliament elections saw Labour slip to third place in a national election for the first time in 90 years.

What all this means is that Brown is unlikely to continue as the Labour leader beyond the election. The last incumbent Prime Minister to lose an election and continue as leader of his party was Harold Wilson in 1970: in that case, the defeat was mitigated by the closeness of the result and Wilson's own considerable popularity. Brown is likely to enjoy neither of these two advantages and will thus almost certainly follow in the path of Ted Heath, James Callaghan, and John Major in relinquishing his party leadership after an election defeat.

A key point to consider is that Mandelson and Harman are themselves highly unlikely to seek leadership. The First Secretary of State would have to resign his Lords seat, contest and win from the Commons, and then attempt to connect with a Labour base that has long disliked him--all in the space of a few months. On the other hand, while Harman is not logistically constrained from leadership because she is a member of the House of Commons, she has made it clear repeatedly that she will not run to replace Brown. There is no reason to expect that she will change her mind. The task of leadership must therefore pass to a member of the party's younger generation. …

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