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Labour’s next leader must head an opposition that looks like an alternative government, not a protest movement

3 min read

We need someone who can devise a deliverable plan for government with identified milestones, writes Dame Diana Johnson MP


Soon my party will choose our sixth leader since I was first elected as an MP in 2005. So far, only one was elected by the British public to serve as prime minister.

Many believed that the wide-ranging manifesto from a leader who many members saw as authentic would triumph after nine years of austerity and a Tory government riven with Brexit woes.

However, that wasn’t how the man I met on the first morning of the general election campaign in Hull North saw it. I tried to persuade him that voting Labour would be good for him and his family, and that more years of Tory government would make things worse.

“How can it get any worse? I work in a minimum wage job in a factory. My kids do the same.”

He didn’t believe that Labour would make any difference.

After the worst Labour result since 1935, I now start my tenth year sitting on the opposition benches. An effective opposition is crucial – but ‘resistance’ is not what gets most Labour members or MPs up in the morning.

Reflecting on whether six will be the magic number to get Labour into power, I recalled John Prescott’s old phrase “traditional values in a modern setting”.

First, I want a Labour leader committed to those eternal Labour values of equality, fairness and freedom, but who will apply them to the 2020s and beyond.

We all understand the social justice case for tackling the climate emergency. I want a leadership who also sees this as a central plank for economic regeneration – not least for northern towns and cities.

Second, while nationalising railways was popular, we need to consider different modern models of social ownership and regulation suited to different industries and services – as envisaged in the wording of Labour’s old clause IV – rather than command economy centralised nationalisation being the only way.

Third, as Aneurin Bevan said, “The language of priorities is the religion of socialism.” Labour’s next leader must lead an opposition that looks like an alternative government – not an impotent protest movement.

We need a deliverable plan for government with identified milestones. For example, in the general election many NHS staff told me that they believed our commitment to a four-day working week was incompatible with our policy of addressing staff shortages and waiting lists. 

Fourth, we need a leader who will end a period when Labour failed to be a broad church and became inward-looking and sectarian. We have an incredibly talented party and a new leader should embrace all parts of it.

The new leader must also deal urgently with the cancer of antisemitism that has blighted Labour since 2015, contributing to many voters seeing Labour as the ‘nasty party’.

Fifth, we need an individual who will listen and respond to communities in all regions and nations of the United Kingdom where trust in Labour has been lost – not least the Hull man who believed that Labour could not do anything for him.

Dame Diana Johnson is Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North

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