Why is there such a talent vacuum in the Labour Party?

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21 November
17:14
November
2016

It’s arguable that a dearth of talent is not a new thing. Even if you look at the first New Labour cabinet in 1997, what would have happened if Tony Blair had fallen under a bus? Gordon Brown would have stepped forwards, and knowing what we do now, would that have worked? He had a lot of talent, but as a political leader he was tragically flawed.

The Blair and Brown split dominated Labour for so long that arguably it overshadowed everything else. There wasn’t room for other people to develop. Blair and Brown demanded, and got, unquestioning loyalty from two different groups of MPs, and the upshot was that Labour was left with neutered, emasculated leaders who just don’t have what it takes.

David Miliband is primary among them. Tony Blair regarded him as a natural successor and encouraged him to stand against Brown, but he wasn’t up to it. Let’s not forget that Miliband had at least three chances to stand against Brown before the 2010 election, and he bottled every single one.

“People on the right and centre in Labour are in an impossible position.”

There are a lot of very clever people among the centre and right of Labour but they have a background of being special advisers and political backroom staff. Look at Ed Miliband – a great ideas man but a terrible salesman. They are not used to the rough and tumble of politics, unlike Blair and Brown, who were from an earlier generation and a different era.

People like Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were brought up to think about politics in a certain way. They went into that leadership election against Corbyn with certain Blairite assumptions about how you manage the party, what you say to voters, that you can basically ignore the members – but they didn’t have a language or set of policies that resonated with anybody. That was why they looked like rabbits in the headlights. Andy Burnham tried to please absolutely everybody and it was completely pathetic. He was said to be the most Blairite contender of all, but he just didn’t have it in him.

People on the right and centre in Labour right now are in an impossible position. Because of the nature of the party’s membership it is very hard for them to reach out and finesse what they believe in. If they put forward certain views they know they will just get crucified on social media, and why should they put themselves through that?

The other factor is that while there is undoubtedly talent in the people being bandied around as possible Labour leaders, we don’t really know leaders until we see them. Even when Tony Blair emerged, under Neil Kinnock, he slowly became more prominent and better known, but nobody realised just how effective he could be until he took over.

Some people blame Blair and Brown for Labour’s apparent talent vacuum now but it is difficult for any leader to try to nurture successors. Kinnock claims that he did that with Blair – gave him a platform and encouraged him to go in a certain direction – but, usually, it is very rare for a leader to think through who is going to succeed them. It’s the one thing that they don’t want to think about. It’s an intimation of their own political mortality.

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