Westminster correspondents love to reduce everything to a personality contest. It's all about Brown v. Miliband (just as before it was Blair v. Brown). Their concerns are not those of Labour members, trade unionists or socialists. And yet too often we allow those correspondents to set our agenda and the parameters of our debates. Think back 12 months. To many in the movement there was no alternative to Brown. One reason for that was that the media deemed it so. Any suggested alternatives were based around personal grudges rather than around real differences in policy ideas. For that reason, the correspondents refused to take the left challenge seriously until the last minute: there just wasn't a personal angle. The very fact that McDonnell said it was about policy and not personalities rendered it a non-story for the lobby press pack.
Yet, the truth is that we can't entirely avoid the question of personalities. Indeed the upper echelons of the party made personality more central by wresting all real influence on policy away from party activists. The depressingly remote nature of the NPF at Warwick and the closing down of all voting at conference has meant that elections are all that are left to us. So NEC elections (which most members choose not to participate in) and leadership and deputy leadership elections (which are very few and far between) are really the only opportunities left for members to participate in the life of the party (other than at a local, associational level).
So for all that we say - quite rightly - that it's all about the policies rather than the personalities, we now have slightly more (potential) influence over personality than policy. No wonder the Labour blogs are full of leadership speculation.
Be that as it may, the truth is still as it ever was, that the personality of the leader is an entirely trivial matter if it is not associated with policy, principle and direction. The reason why Brown was the wrong choice for leader last year was not about his personality, his leadership skills or his Scottishness. All of those things were perfectly acceptable to party and electorate last summer when Labour was riding high in the polls. The reason why Brown was the wrong choice was because, in terms of policy, he did not represent a new direction for the party following the Blair era. He was the wrong person because he did not present a clear direction - he no longer had a clear idea of what the purpose of a Labour government should be.
That is the reason why we are in the difficulties we are in now. Of course the credit crunch and other trends outside the government's control haven't helped, but Brown's reputation as an Iron Chancellor might have made him seem the man for a crisis if he been spear-heading clear, socially-just policies with clear benefits for people, rather than playing silly games with tax thresholds.
What upsets me is that people say we should bide time for two years and the changes can happen then. People say the PLP will be smaller then, the choices will be clearer, etc. I think back to my student days, dreaming of a Labour government. Even two years of a Labour government would have been a glorious thing. The idea that we have two years now and we should do anything other than make the most of them is abhorrent. So is the idea that we should resign ourselves to the return of the Tories.
The only options can be ones where we seek to make the most of being in government and try and encourage people to vote for us again in two years' time.
That means, if Brown is to stay, it has to be with a radical and emphatically-Labour policy agenda: a clear two-year plan. The NPF was a massive missed opportunitiy, as far as the next manifesto is concerned, but the possibility of a decent relaunch is still there. That means dumping the idiocy of right-wing policies of the Purnell type, and embracing a real Labour agenda. I have to confess that I feel that that potential future has almost disappeared.
If, however, Brown is to go - and a coalition of Blairites and journalists seem to have decided it must be that way - then it is essential that there are no more coronations. There must be a full range of candidates including a real left candidate to put forward our arguments and a genuine alternative to the sorts of policies that are likely to emerge from Miliband and other potential candidates.
Of course the debate will start again about who that should be and the debate ends up back where we started: personalities.
For me, it isn't a difficult question. The candidate would need to have some legitimacy, in terms of the backing of left groups; the candidate would need a clear, collectively-formulated policy agenda; the candidate would need to have some profile, be a good public speaker, comfortable in the media, and would need to have a principled record. That candidate, therefore, is John McDonnell. Of course there are other talented parliamentarians on the left who tick some of those boxes (although some of the ones that would immediately present themselves are standing down at the next election) but none who are likely to get the backing of the LRC, Campaign for Socialism, the various union broad lefts, etc. I would suggest, therefore, that McDonnell is the only potential candidate who could be said to transcend the individual, personal, popularity contest and be the figurehead of an activist campaign.
So, if there should be a contest - and I'm not calling for one - I hope very much to see a John McDonnell campaign, and such a campaign would receive my 100% support.