We’re finally starting to see who should lead the Labour Party, observes Dan Hodges

The legendary American football coach Vince Lombardi once confided to an assistant that he found analysing match replays more stimulating than sex. “Either you don’t know how to have sex”, the assistant replied,  “or I don’t know how to watch game footage”.  I was reminded of that quote when someone at Saturday’s Labour Friends of Searchlight leadership hustings gushed to me how the leadership election was “energising the movement”. Either I have unrealistic expectations of what it means to be energised, or elements of the movement  have to get out there and get some excitement into their lives.

This leadership election is dire. The candidates are exhausted. The contest is mired in tedium. There  is lots of sound, but precious little fury. We are a beaten party going through the motions, and it shows.

And yet…and yet. Despite the banality, the drudgery, the parsing, the positioning; somewhere through the gloom, the odd chinks of light are starting to seep through. Patterns, barely discernable, are beginning to form. Gradually we are unearthing the first clues  to who could, and should, be the next leader of our Party.

That’s if we want to. Cling to the belief that the leadership contest will, of itself, generate a Lazarus like revival, and we’ll be disappointed. But accept it for what it is, a flawed process in selecting Gordon Brown’s replacement, and the exercise starts to take on some meaning.

It’s time to stop looking at the contenders on our terms, and starting  scrutinising  them by their own. What were their objectives at the start of the contest. Have they delivered them. If they’ve succeeded or failed, what does it tell us about their wider suitability for leadership?

Take Diane Abbott. She was the candidate who was supposed to blow open the contest by challenging the “established order”. Not just pushing, but tearing the envelope, she would stretch the debate with her radical and unconventional thinking.

It hasn’t happened. She has won some applause and laughter, and has managed to keep her rivals honest around the issue of immigration. But she has never moved beyond the comfort zone of her personal biography, and has failed to articulate a bold or innovative  vision. The dismissal of her colleagues as “geeky young men in suits” was cheap populism, serving only to highlight the limitations of her own strategy.

Andy Burnham started the contest with a more modest objective. Despite the ritualistic statements about ‘running to win’, his campaign is primarily an early marker for the Shadow Cabinet elections. His game is not to secure the top prize, but to demonstrate an ability to hack it amongst the big boys, (and girl).

And in fairness, he’s succeeded. Short of turning up at the debates whistling, “I shall have a fishy on a little dishy”, his ‘Northern Son’ definition couldn’t have been less subtle.  But it’s effective, especially when  combined with some vigorous attacks on coalition health policy and New Labour excess. ‘Burnham – He Can Hold His Own’, is not a slogan to ignite the masses, but it leaves him with a solid platform for the campaigns to come.

The same can’t be said of Ed Balls. By common consent, his challenge is flatlining. One of the three contenders who started the campaign with a prospect of victory, Ed’s decline is one of the startling features of the election. True, he’s never been a confident front of house performer. But the characterisation, or character assassination, of him  by Matthew Norman and others – “witless, weird and sinister” – is grotesque. 18 months ago many speculated that if he hoped to follow Gordon, Ed would have to break the umbilical cord binding him to his former boss. They were right, and the Party’s desire to move beyond the faded flags of the Blair and Brown camps has proved his undoing. But his decision not to plunge in the knife when it would it have been to his personal advantage is the most eloquent rebuttal of Norman’s caricature.

Ed Milliband, meanwhile, has been plunging in knives, daggers, scythes; anything he can get his hands on. David’s copped it, the other leadership rivals have copped it, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, the New Labour Project.  Anyone or anything standing in the way of ‘Eddy Kruger’  is put to the sword. So virulent have been his  assaults on the policies within the last manifesto that I shudder to think what will happen if he ever catches up with the guy who wrote it.

There’s no disputing Ed’s newly crafted “ruthless” image is winning lots of new fans. As respected West London Headmaster Toby Young wrote “Ed has the X Factor and David doesn’t. If I was him, I would have thrown my hat into the ring, too, and if I was a member of the Labour Party I’d vote for him”.

Yes Toby, but re-building a progressive socialist movement and building a fan club aren’t the same thing. And what’s surprising  is the way in which Ed has opted to shelve his vision for Party renewal in favour of an all out assault on Labour’s immediate past.

It also stands in stark contrast to the strategy adopted by his brother. David Milliband  is  playing the long game. Whilst the other candidates have been pitching to the Party, David has been pitching to the Country. ‘I don’t want to be Leader’, is  his message, ‘I want to be Prime Minister’.

It’s high risk. The Party is bruised. A big hug, not tough love, is what we’re looking for. Cynicism over Blair’s power at all costs philosophy runs deep, despite the pain of defeat. And whilst he wants to look to the next election, we want to learn the lessons of elections past.

But give him credit. He’s not playing safe. He’s not playing to the gallery. He’s not running away from a history he helped construct.

And crucially, again judging on his own terms, he looks to me like a man who the mind’s eye of a nation  could see standing on the threshold of Number 10.

But at the end of the day, does that matter. Are we judging the candidates for what they are, or for what we want them to  be. Are we making  a rational assessment, or are we pinning hopes. Is this process about choosing a new leader, or is it about asking a new leader to chose us.

Come September we’ll have the answer. And it will say much less about the person we elect than it will about ourselves.

Dan Hodges is a contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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7 Responses to “We’re finally starting to see who should lead the Labour Party, observes Dan Hodges”

  1. I think this misses the point in several ways, most notably in failing to observe that whilst we need the winner to lead us to a general election victory at some point in the next five years, it’s still an internal Labour Party contest.

    And if those are exciting, we’re doing it wrong. Internal elections are only interesting when huge come-from-behind victories are won (which requires either very low media interest or huge amounts of it and a lot of money besides) or when we start picking the tops off so many scabs we rupture an artery. And New Labour correctly taught us, even if it sometimes forgot it itself, that brutal party civil wars do not boost our standing in the polls.

    So keep it dull. Let it tick over quietly, let the candidates maintain an illusion of collegiality, let them have a little time to plot a plan of leadership and flesh out some policy ideas and let’s wait for September.

    When it gets to conference season the winner can make an exciting speech, outline several initiatives and start presenting ourselves as the rightful next government. Until then, they should be avoiding the papers except when attacking their Cabinet opposite numbers.

    When appealing to party members, they can use party machinery and hustings (now that we’ve bored the journalists away from them). They don’t need to broadcast to the rooftops the many ways they disagree with and hate each other, because the people hearing it either don’t have a vote or don’t actually want the party reduced to a smoking ruin around the contenders.

    I also think you overestime Balls’ initial chances. The character assassination was in place long beforehand and he’d have had a real uphill struggle to win. It’s probably insurmountable now that he’s performed unexceptionally amongst MPs and trade unions, as he was never wildly popular amongst the ordinary membership. That said, he’s not done badly in the race in terms of his future standing. Sure, right now he’s in a race for third, but by concentrating on his day job he may have helped to rehabilitate himself somewhat.

    I have to say the characterisation of Miliband the younger doesn’t convince me either. If his behaviour is ruthless then Labour is even more intolerant of internal dissent than I thought and if there’s any good excuse to quote Toby Young then I haven’t found it yet. It’s not an all-out assault, it’s a reasoned critique of certain elements of the party’s past in an attempt to appeal to the soft left. It’s a little too Damascene for my liking, but suggesting that he’s “opted to shelve his vision for Party renewal in favour of an all out assault on Labour’s immediate past” is to miss the point completely.

    There can be no renewal in the near future without repudiating elements of our immediate past. Our immediate past involves us pissing off pretty much every corner of the electorate, including our own voters and a not insignificant proportion of the membership. To rebuild we have to cut away the dead timbers, and those include civil liberties, Iraq and much of the New Labour project.

    I haven’t got much to say about your characterisation of David Miliband. All I can say is that if the party elects him in a landslide, it’ll show that we still don’t trust ourselves as a party.

  2. […] Hodges has a good assessment (that is, I agree with it) of the Labour leadership candidates at Labour Uncut. He notes that Ed Miliband has run a negative campaign against his party’s past and everyone […]

  3. antigone says:

    dan is right but omits one point – we might have made this painful exercise a bit more interesting and less painful if we’d done it quicker. If the country can elect in four weeks the labour Party surely can. Te future labour leader needs no longer scrutiny than the future Prime Minister and if it were quicker they might have been subjected to more penetrating media inquiry (instead of th big yawn). More importantly we’d have been in a better position to move into more effective opposition instead of tired people shadowing jobs they did before with an air of despair and boredom and unable to move from the political straitjacket that constrains them as a result of their previous positions.

    A new leader now in place could have picked an interim team (pending, if we really must, a shadow cabinet election) and given some new faces and ideas time to shine. Instead we limp on with the leadership elction, not the task of opposition, defining every political statement. Roll on September

  4. […] July 24th, 2010 Quote of the Day Dan Hodges writes… […]

  5. denverthen says:

    This definitely qualifies as world-class navel-gazing. Long may it continue.

  6. libertarian says:

    Edward C-B

    No I think you miss the point, whilst it is an internal election , the people outside ARE watching, and shaking their heads, and chuckling in a can’t believe it kind of way.

    Whilst an internal election really doesn’t require widescale bloodletting and slash and burn, this election is dull not because it is just an internal election fought amongst people who mostly agree, it is dull because the candidates are ALL dull, tedious, boring and predictable. Any of them on becoming leader would be ripped to shreds by the political media

  7. AmberStar says:

    Actually, as the candidates have had more exposure, Andy Burham has gone up in my estimation. Sadly, both the Milibands, have gone down slightly. 😎

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