Labour’s leadership election has been – genuinely – fascinating. At a time when political philosophy and beliefs return as discussion points on the television news for the first time since ‘debate’ enraged over the extent of which Blair distrusted Brown, the Labour Party rage over who was more anti-Iraq than the others, who dislikes the Tories more. All the male contenders, one or two nuanced differences on public service reform aside, speak exactly the same; they are men who reached the highest level of public office possible under Blair/Brown and now talk with all the conviction of mid-level advertising executives at a lunchtime PowerPoint meetings.
I wish the male contenders could be taken seriously. Ed Balls is perhaps the worst of all, tripping up on Radio5Live yesterday with such gems as refusing to explain how he would grow the economy, (“I would grow the economy and make jobs”, he boasted, with a flourish of the Tommy Cooper ‘Just Like That!’). He waffled on about corporate hospitality at cricket grounds to the amusement of the audience, getting a knowing guffaw when he described his constituency of Morley and Outwood as “marginal”. It certainly wasn’t in the notional predictions, Ed, wonder why that was?
Andy “I’m not from London, you know” Burnham speaks with conviction, although his constant complaining about the New Labour way of doing things (he seems obsessed with talking about ‘dinner party ways of doing things’ like someone casually mentioning in their Facebook statuses how they don’t mind never being invited to friends’ events).
The two Millibands are perhaps the most emblematic of the defeated Labour regime. David looks and sounds and acts with Blairite ambition, even affecting the considered croak in the voice Blair used when saying one word while hastily calculating the next best word to use. David’s reputation has had, in once case literally, banana skin moments, the flawed genius unable to fulfil his promise at the right time, now he is struggling not to act like a “King uncrowned”.
Diane Abbott, helped to the shortlist by David Milliband, has been the candidate with the least to lose and the most to say. Sounding more genuinely Labour than any of her male opponents, on topics from privatising hospital cleaning contracts to renewing Trident, Diane is the sound of how the Labour Party used to be before, as she put it, the New Labour “marketing exercise” was introduced.
Blair’s reform of Labour was electorally successful, albeit at the expense of support from traditional Labour followers. The Party of 1997 was not that of 1979, and by following Thatcherite economic models and following George W Bush into the illegal invasion of Iraq, Blair did not break sweat in the aim of getting back those supporters. Labour now has an opportunity to set its course for the duration of this (fixed-term) Parliament; to continue as a centre-left “social democratic party”, or to return to its core values as a broadly left, socialist campaigning party. Diane will not win the leadership, she knows that, but her presence in the campaign highlights the state of Labour today – men of a certain age talking the same language, no difference dared spoken, no radical opinions dared suggested.
During the Liberal Democrat leadership campaign – I put Chris Huhne as my first preference over Nick Clegg, incidentally – what it meant to be liberal in the British political scene was debated right at the top of the contest. I am no closer understanding what it means to be a Labour supporter in 2010 having followed their leadership debates. David Milliband will win, there is no question, taking the Party back to Blairite positioning on welfare and NHS reform and Academy schools.
There could be another way, a genuine change from the Labour Party which alienated so many of its core supporters. To this end, I agree with Diane.