What can the Labour leadership contenders learn from Nicola Sturgeon?

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 22 June 2015 in Editor's note

When Jeremy Corbyn says he wants a debate about policy, the other contenders should listen

What could be more demoralising for a prospective leader of the UK Labour Party than to be asked to measure themselves against the leader of the Scottish National Party?

But that’s exactly what happened in the first television debate between the contenders for Labour’s top job last week.

In one of the more illuminating sections of a fairly dreary hour-long spectacle, a member of the audience asked what qualities of Nicola Sturgeon’s any of them would bring to the job.


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The Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle had previously described the contest as an oasis of boredom: that Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham talk like hostages, Liz Kendall has the air of an Apprentice candidate, and Jeremy Corbyn is like an old pub drinker in a revamped bar.

When Monique Morris provocatively posed the ‘S’ question, that oasis of boredom gently rippled. Burnham said Sturgeon was a plain talker and an effective campaigner.

Kendall said she was a woman [*sigh*] and Cooper observed she couldn’t manage Sturgeon’s heels [*silently screams*] which only succeeded in confirming that neither could she walk in her shoes. It was left to veteran left-winger Corbyn to point out that what he shared with Sturgeon was opposing Trident and the Iraq War.

The audience clapped enthusiastically.

He added that Scotland’s First Minister had been “very effective in putting forward a message that resonated with people”.

None of the four mentioned leadership.

Labour is now looking for a leader both for the UK and its Scottish arm. It is a party that has failed to evolve with the people, despite believing that it is a party of them.

It is waiting for the electorate to change to suit it rather than the other way around. Meanwhile, the SNP has effectively moved into that space while retaining a veneer of being the anti-establishment party, even when it is not.

And that clever balancing act is a trick of true leadership that Sturgeon has made into an art form.

She doesn’t speak to the people, she is one of the people. She’s a participant, not an observer, and she isn’t just against austerity, she feels it.

All of that, whether real or perceived, gives her an authenticity that has helped place her at the top of the polls. Labour should want a bit of that. Instead, they struggle to identify her ‘it’ factor.

Being a party of anti-austerity might have been a start but even on that it faltered.

What has gone wrong with the Labour Party?

It’s a question we have been struggling with for a decade in Scotland in reference to the ‘branch office’ but which has been delayed in the asking down south, partly by a belief that Scottish Labour has long rehearsed, that somehow, the voters got it wrong in one election and it would all come right in the next.

And now the nadir. Scottish Labour has been defining itself by the SNP for years, to less than nil effect, and now the UK party is suffering the ignominy of having to frame its leadership campaign around who Nicola Sturgeon is and what its prospective leaders are not.

But it’s worse than that. Labour finds itself searching for a leader when what it should be doing is searching for itself.

This is a party that needs to find its soul, or at least a voice, and yet we are treated to a parade of contenders, too frightened – bar one – to exercise their own vocal chords in raising a case for radical change in case they make a mistake.

Tony Blair’s former speech writer, Phil Collins, said after last night’s dismal parade of mediocrity that Cooper could just “boringly sneak it” because of second preference votes.

What an indictment that in a competition about leadership, you somehow just make it across the line simply because your opponents were only marginally worse than you were.

Where is the excitement? Where is the vision? Where is the great oratory, the radical rhetoric and that ‘S’ factor that makes us sit up and say ‘that is my man [or woman]’?

How can a party leader be chosen in an exercise that feels like a choice between two different brands of processed cheese – bland, tasteless and without much bite.

It feels like these people – good as they may be – are going through the motions rather than showing us what they’ve got.

Here’s a thing. Kendall, an MP for just five years and whose main attributes seems to be that she comes from Watford and has no baggage.

Cooper, a woman that seems to believe that being a woman is one of her main qualities, along with the fact that she says she ran the £100bn budget at the Department for Work and Pensions. Really?

Burnham, well, he is from ‘up north’.

And then there is Corbyn. He’s in it, but not to win it. He wants to provoke a debate about policy before leadership and remind us of a time when Labour leaders favoured corduroy over pinstripes.

He’s the one who gets the applause. Why? Because he feels real and is speaking up for the everyman, the people that Labour left behind and who have now left Labour.

The others should listen.

But interestingly in Scotland, where Labour has its own leadership travails, John McTernan, former Blair adviser and now the generic ‘Scottish Labour leader’s chief of staff’, dismisses Corbyn’s argument for a policy debate as “clichéd nonsense”.

Labour, both north and south, does not just need leadership.

It needs policy, it needs vision and it needs leaders – one of whom could potentially be the next Prime Minister and the other the First Minister – to have the ‘S’ factor.

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