How did it come to this? In my first post just two and a half months ago I argued that the Labour Party's predicament was nothing like as bad as it seemed; that a broad offer from a charismatic leader could easily overturn that twelve-seat Conservative majority and build momentum behind a rejuvenated Labour Party returning to power in 2020. Apparently, what seemed to be an obvious and realistic solution to a fairly uncomplicated problem proved to be a more ambitious proposition than I could ever have imagined. The Labour leadership election now presents us with four different versions of the future, none of which obviously leads Labour back to government. Each of the four candidates has their strengths and each of them has said at least something that needs saying by the new leader of the Labour Party. Indeed, if you could fuse the strengths of all four of them into one entity (many would say that is exactly what the Labour Party is supposed to be able to do- "by the strength of our common endeavour" and all that) you would have an excellent party leader and an even better PM. In this post I am seeking to "build my own Labour leader" from four component parts of the candidates we have available. Hopefully this way I can shed some light on an increasingly murky picture...
Component 1.) The eyelashes of Andy Burnham. Ed Miliband didn't just lose the election because of how he ate a bacon sandwich but it really didn't help. A party leader has to look good on television and they have to present themselves in a way that appears strong yet non-threatening to the public. I wish image wasn't important but it is and it makes a big difference to voters' perceptions of party leaders. Andy Burnham's dubious Kes/Brassed Off/Billy Elliot back story (you can't truly understand the day-to-day realities of a hard-working northern family unless you've cut your teeth at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge or served your time at the coalface as a special advisor to the secretary of state for culture, media and sport) and his polished, centred demeanour would certainly be an antidote to the gawkiness of Miliband or the "iron fist" of Brown. However, I still don't feel I know what there is behind the image or where he actually wants to take the party. I have a lingering sense that he is just saying whatever he thinks he needs to say to win and a vote for him would be a vote for nothing in particular. For this reason, at this stage in the race, I don't think I will be giving him my first preference vote.
Component 2.) The brain of Yvette Cooper. In terms of her prescription for Labour's development over the next few years, Yvette Cooper's views are those that most closely represent my own and I may yet end up voting for her as my first preference. I think she is the candidate whose position genuinely reflects the complexity of Labour's election defeat. With a poor turnout overall, a surge in support for UKIP and the SNP but also a solid showing for the Conservatives in middle England, she is the one candidate that understands the party must broaden rather than move. She has outlined throughout the hustings her view that Labour can't simply shift its narrow offer to appease its left or right wing, instead it must find the policies to embrace both and build an election-winning consensus. Her weakness in this contest has been her strength as a politician. Alex Salmond told the BBC's "This Week" programme shortly after the election that "the art of politics is not to lie", which is to say that by choosing their words carefully and ensuring they only commit to positions once they have become the settled will of their party, politicians can avoid getting caught out. The problem with Yvette Cooper in this particular election is that, because she is so skilled at this art, she appears to equivocate too much and, in an age when politicians are frequently criticised for "not saying what they mean" or "talking in soundbites," it means she doesn't appear to defend her (in my opinion, very appealing) position in this contest with the passion or decisiveness it deserves.
Component 3.) The voice of Jeremy Corbyn. For a committed champagne socialist such as myself, there is something wonderfully cathartic about the Jeremy Corbyn campaign but I'm far from sure that I actually want him to win. For the last few years we have heard Nigel Farage praised for being "plain-speaking" and "unconstrained by an out-of-touch Westminster elite." How refreshing to see a politician cast into the public eye now who speaks equally plainly, but in a way I broadly agree with. The prevailing consensus on austerity does need to be challenged, the way in which our utilities and railways are run does need to be reviewed (state ownership of these services is not a radical position; it is the norm across most of Europe) and Labour's commitment to mitigating inequality does need to be protected. I'm glad Corbyn has been part of the contest and I'm glad these discussions have been opened up but I also understand why so many in the party are concerned. Especially if Tom Watson is (as those ever-reliable polls suggest he will be) elected as deputy leader, the charges inevitably made by the press that Labour was being run by "dinosaurs" would eventually stick in the minds of voters in key marginal constituencies. I think there's every chance Corbyn's brand of straight-talking principled politics could actually increase Labour's share of the vote even in England but, under the First Past the Post system, that is not how the Tories will be defeated. It is seats that matter and it is hard to imagine Corbyn being the man to persuade the voters of Nuneaton, Peterborough or Northampton that it's time to start voting Labour again. That said, if Corbyn does win, it will be because none of the other candidates could persuade Labour supporters to back their position with the same conviction. And if they can't convince the party, I don't believe they could convince the electorate either.
Component 4.) The spine of Liz Kendall. She is not a Tory and she is not a traitor but I disagree with a lot of what Liz Kendall has said and the behaviour of some of her backers is utterly disgusting. Not satisfied with calling the MPS who nominated Jeremy Corbyn "morons" John McTernan, an advisor to Tony Blair during the era when he was hemorrhaging support, then called for Corbyn's immediate removal if he were to win. John Mann MP, meanwhile, is unwilling to wait that long and instead wants the leadership election halted now because his preferred candidate isn't winning. Of course, Tony Blair himself also called for Corbyn's supporters to have a "heart transplant". When you consider all of this, I look with some bafflement at Chuka Umunna's assertion that it is Liz Kendall's opponents who are behaving "like a petulant child." The irony is that my first thought, the morning after the election, was that Umunna himself looked like the obvious choice for Labour's next leader but he ruled himself out of the contest within days. Now these outbursts from people who should no better have left me tempted on numerous occasions to vote for Jeremy Corbyn just to give them what they deserve! The prescription of all these people seems to be the opposite of Corbyn's. Rather than ignoring the Conservative voters of middle England, they want to make them Labour's only target, pretending that the SNP and UKIP don't exist and ignoring the millions of people at the election who told canvassers that they simply "couldn't tell the difference" between the two main parties. Personally, my instinct is that attempting to recreate Tony Blair's victory exactly now could utterly destroy the party. If Labour agrees with most of the Tory narrative on austerity, welfare and inequality and tries to redefine itself on their terms I suspect the reaction of many Conservative voters in middle England will be "oh good, Labour have now understood that the Conservatives are right. I like Labour more and I'll carry on voting Conservative." In this climate, moving a narrow party right (Liz Kendall refuses to endorse even popular "left-wing" policies like re-nationalisation of the railways simply because they are "left-wing") could be even more catastrophic than moving a narrow party left. For that reason I will almost certainly be putting Liz Kendall fourth on my ballot slip but I do admire her tenacity in standing up for what she believes in and she has been absolutely right to deliver some difficult messages that not everyone in the party wants to hear. In particular, Kendall has spelt out more clearly than any of the other candidates the need for Labour to reach out beyond its core support, particularly to small business owners who, by pioneering enterprises that challenge the monopoly of large corporations, should be exactly the people the party wants on its side.
The last set of polling data had Jeremy Corbyn some way ahead of Yvette Cooper in second place but it didn't specify how second and third preferences would come into play. I imagine the majority of Liz Kendall's supporters will have Jeremy Corbyn in last place on their ballot paper and I imagine most of Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper's supporters will back each other before Corbyn. In that context the narrative being gleefully advanced by the right-wing media may not be entirely accurate but he does appear to be in the lead. My hope is that Yvette Cooper can find her voice in the final weeks of the campaign, take the fight to both narrow wings of the party and show us that she can make her case (which, as I said, is the one I think makes most sense in this day and age) with clarity, energy and passion. If she doesn't Jeremy Corbyn will win and it will be pointless for the rest of the party to blame anyone but themselves.