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Leadership election: inspired anyone?

Labour LeadershipCandidates purple1There’s one thing to be said for political leadership contests. It’s the one time politicians are honest about each other. It’s also an occasion for an airing of views, of setting one’s stall out in public about the strategies and policies that are likely to capture the imagination, and get party and country out of the holes they’re in.

Unfortunately, so far at least, the Labour leadership contest falls short of this ideal-typical notion of what a contest should look like. Having scanned numerous discussions in the last week amid the compulsory Ed Miliband obituaries, professional commentators and the hoi polloi of social media are fixating on personality over politics. That’s probably because there isn’t that much separating the five (I’m including my erstwhile boss here, even though he’s yet to declare). It’s frustrating.

The left have piled in behind Andy Burnham, it looks like the Progress-y types are rallying around Liz Kendall, leaving Yvette Cooper to mop up whoever’s left. Poor old Tristram and Mary Creagh, they will be hard pressed to pick up the required 35 MP votes to be put before the membership. And no one, not one of the candidates so far have made much of a policy announcement. Aspiration is the buzz word of choice, and all are vying for its mantle.

Of course, personalities are important in politics. Having a figure that can embody your party and movement, as well acting as a canvas for uncommitted/swing voters to project whatever they want onto her/him is crucial. Though, it should be noted that leader effects can be overstated. Despite all the chatter about how better David Miliband would have done, serious research into this area finds that leaders have marginal effects on vote tallies (though, in the case of the election, that might have made the difference between a hung Parliament and a majority).

Let us dwell then on the issue of personality and the scraps of policy comments made by the frontrunners so far. Again, condensing the chatter out there in political comment land, a number of views are coalescing:

Andy Burnham is too northern and too working class to appeal to the 901 middle England voters who gifted the Tories their majority. He has privately-held conservative views consistent with his Catholicism (you can guess what they are, nudge nudge), and, well, Mid-Staffs Hospital.

Yvette Cooper is a time server who, for obvious reasons, is too close to Ed Balls and carriages baggage from the Blair/Brown ancien regime. She voted for the Iraq War and “opposed” Theresa May by, at times, appearing even more authoritarian.

Mary Creagh is this contest’s Andy Burnham (circa 2010) who stands no chance, but is raising her profile. Similarly with Tristram Hunt. His urbane charm would go down very well in the South East but ooop north, he is the stuff of which UKIP votes are made.

And then there is Liz Kendall. Select Tories have helpfully let it be known she is the one that scares them the most, and while very personable with a sharp tactical brain, she is as Westminster wonky as the rest and has skewed priorities. Asked at the leadership hustings at the weekend’s Progress conference, she outlined one of her priorities to be “public sector reform“. There couldn’t be a clearer signal of her heir-to-Blair creds. The fear is the hollowing out that took place under Blair and Brown, and has since been partially filled back in, could see the excavation start all over again.

In fact, that Progress hustings should be required viewing for all sections of the labour movement. Just don’t expect too much. While all are aware of what Tristram calls the triple-bind – coming back in Scotland, seeing off UKIP and other threats in heartland seats, and scooping up Tory-held constituencies by the bucketload, there is scant – if any – awareness of the deep seated problems the party has got. Take this of Barry Sheerman speaking “unofficially” for Camp Kendall. He says:

The 2010 result, and the way it happened, means we need a different relationship with the trade unions. We don’t want to break it, but we have to be realistic about the role of unions in society. They are smaller than they ever were and they are increasingly rare in the private sector. They do not provide troops on the ground or at general committees. The number of trades unionists that are active in the Labour party on the ground is tiny.

Charming. I don’t know what it’s like for Barry in his Huddersfield patch, but that’s certainly not the case with the half dozen or so CLPs of my acquaintance. Perhaps a few words with his West Midlands comrades might be in order. Nevertheless, to choose to mouth off on this issue now when candidates should be courting votes suggests that Liz thinks the future is putting even more distance between real working people, at the very moment politicians treat working people in the abstract as a fetish. Thanks, but no thanks. You can’t solve Labour’s problems by making them worse.

And then there were four. A litmus test for any political leader is economic literacy and understanding the difference between political economy and economics driven by politics. And, unfortunately, this is where two more of the contenders fall short. On Thursday’s Question Time, responding to an audience member asking about spending under the last Labour government prior to the crash, Tristram Hunt conceded the Tory view that it had spend too much. It got a round of applause, but it was wrong.

Likewise, and worryingly for a leadership candidate, at Progress Mary said it hadn’t and yet a day later, faced with Brillo on The Sunday Politics, she said that it had – but won’t be apologising for extra nurses, hospitals and what have you. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such gratuitous – and fatuous – cake eating. So for not standing up for the truth, however inconvenient it might be and, in Mary’s case, for basic dishonesty, it’s a no.

Two left. Notably, only Yvette defended Labour’s spending. Andy clapped, the others sat on their hands. Here then are the two who have an inkling about what’s going on. Yvette, as a trained economist, presumably believes the Post-Keynesian economics that underpinned her husband’s challenge in 2010 and, one hopes, will see them get an airing this time round. However, the big problems with Ed Balls was his intellectual pitch against austerity then was abandoned entirely once he assumed the shadow chancellor brief. He knew cuts were unnecessary and damaging, but went along with it anyway because – again – Westminster convenience. Will she show greater political courage?

And there is Andy. He has the momentum, but does he have the policies? Interestingly, at Progress he made an audacious pitch for aspiration by hinting (only hinting, mind) that he’s set to lump tuition fees in with so-called ‘taxes on aspiration’ – one barrier to aspiration most Blairite ultras have shown persistent indifference to. But much of what he is standing for remains in the murk. A development of a national care service and its integration into the NHS, certainly, but what about the economy, housing, and the rest? And what’s his diagnosis of the problems facing the Labour party, the movement he represents, and how does he propose we address them?

Of the field, Andy and Yvette seem to be the most plugged in but there’s little that is inspirational. Unless things liven up, unless the serious questions are raised, debated, and faced up to, the road beyond the leadership election is going to be rocky.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid

24 Comments

  1. James Martin says:

    It’s early days, the debates and meetings around the country will properly get under way once the nominations close and it is clear who has got enough nominations to get on the ballot paper.

    I’ve said elsewhere that in the absence of genuine left candidates we should support those who we believe will do less harm to both what is left of internal democracy in the Party and to the trade union link. Out of the runners so far for leadership that is likely to be Burnham (although there are no guarantees on that score, Ed was union friendly when elected but still gave us Falkirk and Collins).

    Already the right (both inside and outside the Party) are using the contest to try and focus on the union link. The odious little toe-rag Frank Field was all over R4 yesterday calling for the link to be ended and state funding to be introduced (and disgracefully he wasn’t opposed or challenged in that by Harriet Hardperson who followed him).

    We also have the huge attempts to weaken the influence of actual members and affiliates by the ‘£3’ one-off payment to become a ‘registered supporter’ which is a huge attack on Party democracy and a huge attack on those of us who have paid our membership subs and union levy for year in, year out. Clearly the intention is to get enough casual ‘supporters’ who will vote according to what the right-wing media say.

  2. Carol Angharad says:

    Jon Trickett recent posting ‘No going back – Labour needs a clean break’ offers a fresh approach & gives questions I would like to put to any candidate. There is no candidate yet that will get my vote. Stella Creasey should be standing for Leadership that at least would bring an alternative view.

  3. David Pavett says:

    Given this dismal choice I guess I will vote for Burnham but with about the same lack of enthusiasm that I voted Labour in the recent election. I visited Burnham’s website and the also that of the Andy4Leader campaign. On neither was their any material in which he sets out his policies and his political philosophy. Being asked to choose on this sort of basis means a continuation of the mindless discourse that dominates Labour talk. Very unedifying. Burnham looks like Miliband Mark II to me (but probably with less of a lefty tinge to his rhetoric) and all the others look considerably worse. What we need is some real discussion about policy from these people (not to speak of within the Labour Party generally).

    1. Robert says:

      Burnham has a bit more experience then Miliband and also Miliband tried to be what he was not, i doubt Cameron will be to bothered whom takes the hot seat.

      It’s sad really that Brown turned out to be such a bloody night mare, and when you look around at labour’s left, they are either getting on in age, or are not that clever.

      The three Progress drones will I suspect end up falling by the way side and then back up the others , but sadly Burnham is all the left has and sadly I think Progress will take him to one side and tell him your doing what we say.

      God labour have a weak line up and not much in the back ground either. It’s the worse I’ve ever seen

  4. Andy Newman says:

    Liz Kendall’s pitch seems to be that Labour should be exactly the same as the Conservative Party, in which case, you do wonder what the purpose of the Labour Party would be?

    1. John P Reid says:

      To stop the Tories swinging tithe right, if the Tories Win in the centre, then labour lose by swinging to the left, the stories can then be able to swing too the right,as labour are unelectable

    2. Robert says:

      Yep well when your that far to the right, you will have a picture of Thatcher on the wall.

  5. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    Seriously ?

  6. David Ellis says:

    Not very aspiring is it this line up? Looks like they are going to end up trying to repeat the Ed Miliband trick of covering their New Labourism and pro-austerity politics in a few bits of lefty phraseology. That worked to prevent a rout in the last election but it won’t work again. Labour will disappear unless they choose a leader that fights austerity and offers actual opposition to this vicious Tory government instead of trying to outflank it from the right all the time. So I guess that means it is going to disappear.

    1. Robert says:

      Do you know one, I mean one who wants to stand.

      1. David Ellis says:

        No and even if they wanted to they wouldn’t get enought nominations. Time to let New Labour bleed out behind Burnham or Cooper or whoever whilst the rest of us try to forge a genuine anti-austerity opposition and a programme for working class power and the transition socialism.

        1. Robert says:

          Lets hope it gets off the ground.

  7. John P Reid says:

    Your detention of middle England Rories,who won’t vote for Burnham because he’s working class Noethern, excludes the fact that most of those who voted Tory,who we need to get back,who use to vote labour
    Are…Working class and northern

    Did labour back the snoopers charter,and knocking Theresa May,when she backed A Toey MP who lied he hurled abuse at a Policeman,who he threatened to see sacked, regarding backing Iraq, in 2010 I backed Ed Miliband at our parties hustings,I drove , Emily Theinberry to talk in Eds behalf, taking her to the gig I said, don’t mention David voted for Iraq as away of kin king him,and Backing Ed,as no one cares, in a meeting I had with Sadiq Khan,on how to win over Essex man, in London to select him as Labours choice rather than Mr Lammy, I said the same don’t knock Lammy for voting for Iraq as no one cares.

    The real question is who’d be best deputy, Eagle or Bradshaw or Flint,sorry Stella, you’re good but not good enough.

    I know 3 female ex labour voters who voted tory for the first time, having voted labour for 45 years, incl,1983 they’d all come back, if acreage was leader.

  8. swatantra says:

    The Left have only themselves to blame if they can’t even come up with a credible Leader that can secure their 33 votes to enter the contest.
    Andy is the Unity candidate and probably the most appealing. And we want a Northerner in there, we haven’t had one since Harold W.
    Deputy should be Caroline Flint who is as tough as old boots and can answer back to any Tory.

    1. John P Reid says:

      Wasn’t Blair a northerner ?

  9. Barry Ewart says:

    I have a cunning plan.
    When it comes to the ballot we all write in ‘Dennis Skinner’ (the grassroots adds an extra box and takes the power).
    And just why is it MPs only who decide the shortlist?
    One rule for one…
    So members do all the graft all year round and supporters can pay £3 and have an equal say then disappear again for us all to continue the graft.
    Really fair?
    Should have £5 membership fee (but better off can pay more) – could have sliding scale contributions (like some unions).
    Need to get power back to grassroots and Conference.
    We are still, “Lions led by donkeys!”
    We need a lion!

    1. John says:

      I’m currently replying to every email the party sends (including one yesterday – after 41 years membership – saying that I didn’t appear on their records as a member) asking if there will be a ‘None-of-the-Above’ option on the ballot paper.

      There must be 35 left wing MPs who can agree to support one candidate, even it’s only to ensure that the leadership election is not just a coronation for some Blairite/Progress clone.

      1. Robert says:

        Yes we have a lot of left wingers, not as many as the right have, but how many of those lefties would get the backing of 35 MP’s I suspect 12 or 14, not enough.

        If John McDonnell stood again how many of the Progress drones would back him, he needs to have 35 MP’s to back him, if Abbott stood again how many would back her, the problem is labour is not to the left any more Progress have done a bloody good job at taking over.

  10. Chris says:

    Burnham and Cooper are as close to heavyweights as Labour has now. I don’t think the others are credible – they’re just recently elected members of that group of elite candidates who get promoted instantly after entering parliament. Arguably that pathway to the top for slick insiders is bad for Labour.

  11. Barry Ewart says:

    By the way I have just nominated John Lennon for the back of the new Bank of England £20 note.
    John & Yoko in bed for peace!
    I think their billboards for peace around the World were also visually stunning!
    Wow may not want to let go of one of those notes!
    Yours in peace!

  12. Sandra Crawford says:

    I feel much the same as commentators above.
    But I feel Andy Burnham to be the best we can do. He was the only Cabinet member who wanted to reverse the disastrous NHS privatisation bill in 2012.
    Liz Kendall seems fairly relaxed about a market in the NHS.
    For me, this is one of the acid tests.
    It shows a principle of putting people before corporate profit.

    1. Robert says:

      But he sends out a mixed picture you think you understand him and then he comes out with a mess.

      If Labour is weaponising the NHS, maybe it needs to sharpen its tools. Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham had a difficult and ill-tempered interview on Newsnight yesterday about what he actually thinks about private sector involvement in the NHS. When asked about the role he sees for the private sector under his reshaped health service, Burnham said private companies would not be entirely excluded:

      ‘There is still a role for private and voluntary providers but I also did say very clearly that the market is not the answer.’

  13. Robert says:

    Hunt has gone possibly not getting enough Progress hot shots to back him.

  14. John P Reid says:

    If labour swings towards the right they’ll be no one to represent the left in parliament, the SNP, greens,!, and as it takes 30,000 votes to represent one person in parliament, that assumes a far left party would get 30,000′ one TUSC person didn’t even get one vote

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