Fraternal Greetings from the Contest
Our Mole wonders whether Labour’s unexpected outbreak of party unity will last beyond the leadership campaign
So who will win the Labour leadership? And does it matter? Whenever Labour has gone into opposition after a substantial period of government, it has had to change leaders two or more times before finding the person able to unlock the door back to power.
This time, it may be different. And for the first time in any Labour leadership contest since the party’s founding moment in 1906 there is none of the bitter infighting that splits and scars a party for years to come.
On the contrary, there is a cocky complacency in Labour’s ranks that the Tory-Lib Dem alliance will not last. David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown were all losers in May. Cameron was the first Conservative in generations unable to win a majority despite the Labour PM’s unpopularity and the country’s rejection of a government without purpose or principle. Clegg was the first Lib Dem leader to preside over a loss of seats for his party, squandering the heritage that Paddy Ashdown and Charlie Kennedy handed on to him. Brown was the most obvious loser but the extraordinary creation of the coalition in the biggest remaking of the parliamentary landscape in 150 years has obscured the fact that both Dave and Nick also failed to achieve the goals they had set for themselves in the run-up to the election.
But the coalition has also allowed Labour to skip over its traditional five to ten years of navel-gazing and squabbling and instead organise a remarkable leadership contest in which there have been no quarrels, no ideological fissures and a remarkable reach-out to party members, including 30,000 new ones since May. If Cameron became party leader on the basis of one walk-the-stage speech in October 2005, and Obama became President because US Democrats could not stomach another Clinton in the White House, then whoever emerges from Labour’s exhaustive process will have met, addressed and talked to more party members and debated with fellow candidates more than we have seen in any other democratic party in the world. Having been unable to replace Brown by someone electable while he was PM, Labour is making up for its failure to take leadership seriously by insisting on the toughest procedure to find their new man.
And man it will be. Diane Abbott is a pure product of the non-Eton road to membership of the governing class. Harrow County School for Girls was followed by Cambridge, a fast-track into the civil service and then a safe seat in her thirties. Ms Abbott has turned her MP status into rich earnings from the media. No talent has been so wasted. She owes her place on the ballot paper to Blairite MPs who rushed to nominate her so that the party’s Left would have someone they saw as their own.
In fact, the real woman winner in the leadership process has been Harriet Harman, who has had a splendid three months as acting leader. She has regularly tripped up Cameron during PMQs, focusing on anonymity in rape cases or cuts to poor mothers, which resonate with those whom Labour has to win back. She dines regularly with MPs and sits with the new intake in the Tea Room. Whoever becomes leader, Harriet is now the most powerful woman in Labour history. In Tea Room discussion after Tea Room discussion, MPs beg her to stay on. But she wisely knows that her strength lies in not having that ambition.
For the rest, the problem is that they are all four peas from the same pod — two brothers, two called Ed, all the same age, the same Oxbridge policy adviser background, parachuted into safe seats and then waltzed into the cabinet. None has been an exceptionally good or bad minister. All stayed faithfully in the tracks laid down by Blair and Brown. David Miliband at least took one big decision when he was offered the job of European Foreign Minister. He turned it down, telling friends he wanted to stay in Britain to save Labour from Brown and the post-election effects of Brownism.
People admire, even respect David but like Ed, his younger brother, more. Ed is the friend you always wanted, David is the analyst and policy-producer no party can do without. David — never Dave — has the party’s thinkers around him, the cerebral Douglas Alexander and the strategic Jim Murphy. Ed is backed by the back-slappers, the folksy folk even if he is as much a Primrose Hill pointy-head as his brother. Labour’s London saloniers such as Helena Kennedy are supporting Ed. They have spent Labour’s years in power in some misery as they prefer to be Guardianistas in opposition. The Guardian‘s endorsement of Clegg in the general election has cost it its credibility as a paper of the Left. Now its ageing stable of columnists — they seem to have been there for centuries — are promoting Ed M as the closest they can get to someone who will follow their line.
Ed Balls has had the best parliamentary leadership campaign thanks to the botched way Education Secretary Michael Gove handled the announcements on school building funding and his rushed-through academies legislation. Had the party won, a Labour education secretary would have made similar announcements. But Gove, so smart and savvy in opposition, has turned out to be an unlucky minister in terms of his handling of the Commons. Balls, who is a poor speaker, has grown in stature. While he cannot win the leadership, he is assured a shadow cabinet place. Many mutter privately that Mrs Balls, Yvette Cooper, would have been a better candidate and this couple will remain a fascinating force in politics for years to come.
Andy Burnham has the longest eye-lashes in the Commons and although every bit a product of the non-Eton production line for the political elite, he hams up his Lancashire roots to good effect. He genuinely likes the party, its MPs and its activists and gave generously of his time for off-radar party meetings up and down the country in his years as a swiftly promoted cabinet minister.
The big loser is Brown’s bruiser Charlie Whelan. He has boasted about delivering two million Unite union members to Brown’s preferred choice, Balls. But unions know that Brown did little for them as Chancellor and guaranteed Labour losing power by insisting on his divine right to stay in No 10. To Whelan’s horror, the Unite executive ignored his entreaties and nominated Ed M. But union members still vote as individuals in a secret ballot and they like everyone else will ask a simple question: does Labour want a PM-in-waiting, either because the coalition may not last for internal political reasons or because, like Edward Heath’s government, it cannot rise to the challenge of external shocks and domestic discord? Or does Labour want a leader of the opposition who will tell the party what it wants to hear but move it out of its core 30 per cent electorate?
David M is best suited to the first task, Ed M to the second. Is it too late for a fraternal job-share? And once the new man is in, have the last four months of Labour unity and harmony been a false dawn? Will the band of brothers break into the squabbling, quarrelling haters that helped to keep Labour in opposition for 13 years after 1951 and 18 years after 1979?