Sunday, 20 June 2010

5 candidates for Labour leadership contest

The race to succeed Gordon Brown as Labour leader is underway with 5 candidates declared after gaining sufficient support from the parliamentary party.

The two Miliband brothers, Ed and David, offer a spark of sibling rivalry, while the other Ed, Gordon Brown's right-hand man, Balls, is joined by professional northerner Andy Burnham and eternal backbencher and voice of the grassroots Diane Abbott.

On the face of it this looks like a broad contest between personalities representing each of the different camps of the party. Yet, as ever, that would be far too simple an analysis.

The preliminary manoeuverings saw acting leader Harriet Harman make a call for a more balanced range of candidates as it appeared the slate would be filled by 5 men. Other voices made the case for an 'inclusive' selection which included not just the white middle-class oxbridge-educated faces who make up the traditional political elites.

Ultimately this resulted in John McDonnell deferring in favour of Diane Abbott, but it can't be much reassurance of the progress made by the party in that direction that it required some exhaustive arm-twisting for her to get on the ballot at all. However I'd argue that this says less about Labour's commitment to equality and more about her and her performances as a pundit with Michael Portillo on Andrew Neil's This Week sofa over the last parliament - the way she regularly raises her eyes to the heavens for inspiration when put on the spot is the sign of someone consciously spinning for effect rather than of someone who is well-versed in her convictions.

It must be flattering for Abbott to realise her ambition and be recognised as the figurehead for the 'left' she always wanted to be and she will use the platform to position the campaigning heart of her party, but she is nevertheless only a token candidate who has no serious chance, and this must be a blow to what she represents. Just as John Cruddas was universally praised for his stillborn campaign during the deputy-leadership election only a couple of years ago the dismissive compliments are already flowing for Abbott.

Elsewhere the four remaining men offer competing visions of the continuing Blair-Brown dichotomy.

Ed Balls is by far the most Brownite and David Miliband is considered the most Blairite, but each have conspicuous weaknesses to count against their prospects as potential PMs.

Balls is closely associated with the technocratic micro-management (some would say bullying) of departments which marked Labour's time in power and which allowed proper regulation of the banking system to collapse into the financial crisis, while David Miliband is generally characterised as somewhat aloof and elitist and is remembered for several failed coup attempts when he was unable to garner enough support to topple Brown at the height of his unpopularity.

On the other hand Andy Burnham and Ed Miliband suffer from perceptions as more lightweight figures.

Tempramental Ed Miliband is seen as more of a Brownite than his brother, but has vigorously pushed the environmental agenda to the front of members minds, popular with the more youthful wing - which makes him a more identifiable candidate, although this could be seen as a double-edged sword marking him out as a one-trick pony.

And finally there is the fresh-faced 40-year-old former Health Secretary Andy Burnham. His tenure in charge of the largest government department oversaw continued rises in spending, so questions will surely be raised about his competence under scrutiny as spending rose up the public agenda and value-for-money came to the fore.

All-in-all the election does (with the exception of Abbott) seem wide open with the best of talent from Labour's ranks putting themselves forward

Three of the remaining four are visibly chomping at the bit with the opportunity to fulfil their ambitions and will believe they have a clear opportunity to win power back quickly by forcing an early general election.

The obvious tactic is to divide the coalition with strong enough appeal to LibDems who they will attempt to portray as betrayed by Nick Clegg. However it is a mistake for this to be articulated by the candidates - I find it off-putting for them to dictate to me who I may or may not vote for!

So as someone in an area where my vote is open to float between parties I can say the choice doesn't appeal to me and it feels more like when the Conservatives elected the then 36-year-old William Hague back in 1997.

Overall then the candidates show the continuing lack of a credible voice for the 'left' of the party which shows the attempts it is making to be a bridge between the centre and the left. While Blair was a successful exponent of this strategy (from a more centrist position) it strikes me that there is no single outstanding figure who can claim to be lead the party in a new direction.

David Miliband has the most to lose, while the backing given by the Trades Unions to his brother Ed makes him the biggest threat. This has the potential to make the contest bloody and opens up a route for Ed Balls to pick up the baton as they neutralise each other. Therefore Balls will hope to rise above any in-fighting and portray himself as concentrating on attacking the government at every turn.

So performances over the next week as the cuts agenda is defined by the emergency budget will be crucial to determining who is the most effective and we should be watching closely - just not so closely to start believing any of them will become a Labour Prime Minister.

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