At the outset of the contest Jon Cruddas made the wise observation that even though he had known all the candidates personally for 20 years, he didn’t really know what they stood for. This is because with the exception of Diane Abbott, they had all had cabinet responsibility, and had been bound to follow the collective responsibility of the government. So their personal political instincts had been subsumed by the collective discipline of the Labour cabinet.
Now purists may object to anyone who had been in the cabinet when some dubious decisions were made, but then we would be talking about electing the leader of a different party, not the Labour Party. In truth, it was the economic intervention of Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown to the financial crisis in 2008 that prevented recession turning into a depression; and as we currently see from the Tories, those who said there would be no difference were wrong.
There was certainly a preference by some on the Blairite wing for a coronation, where David Miliband, the anointed Blairite successor, would seamlessly take the baton, with wider no debate involving the membership and the unions. That hasn’t happened.
The long campaign has allowed the labour movement to feel comfortable again with open debate and disagreement. Indeed Ed Balls seems to have won the argument and turned around the economic consensus in the party, as we could see in last week’s Question Time debate, when Ed Miliband backed Balls, in the argument with Andy Burnham, and David Miliband said nothing.
Diane Abbott’s participation in the debate has been extremely constructive, both in demonstrating that left wing ideas, when presented in a human and relevant way, can be popular beyond the small circles of the activist left; but also in killing opposition to immigration being a theme of the campaign, which did look possible at the start.
What has impressed me is the lack of bad feeling and divisiveness in the leadership contest. The different strategies and visions have been greeted with equal respect, and members have discussed without any acrimony their preferences, whether for Diane Abbott or David Miliband.
It looks likely that among trade unionists, Ed Miliband is going to get a healthy majority of first and second preference votes; especially as those who support Ed are probably those most likely to vote.
MPs will give a majority to David Miliband. Though I wonder whether this might have been different if MPs had not had to declare so early in the nomination process.
The important thing to understand is that even if David Miliband wins, this is not a simple Blairite succession. In terms of policy, David is not so vastly distant from Ed M, and the difference between them is more the willingness of Ed Miliband to work with the unions, and to recognise the strategic necessity of strengthening Labour’s core votes among the working class, and progressive intellectuals and professional classes.
While David Miliband correctly talks of the need to orient towards the votes that Labour has lost to the Lib Dems, it is important to understand that many of those votes were lost over issues where Labour was too right wing: on civil liberties, on colluding with rendition flights, with Trident renewal and ID cards, and of course the Iraq war.
Key defining issues of Blairism, an orientation on the market economy, and triangulation around swing voters in marginal constituencies have been largely discredited. Crucially the Blairite management of the party to suppress political debate has been weakened by the positive experience of the leadership contest.
Even if David Miliband wins the leadership, he will not be Blair mark II, because the political context is different now. The opening exists for the trade unions, and socialists to argue that the most effective way to oppose the Tories is in re-consolidating Labour’s position as a social democratic party, founded on principles of equality, economic justice, fairness and solidarity.