And so it ends. By this week-end, three quarters of the votes in the 2010 Labour leadership election will have been cast. The contest will effectively be over.
We’ve learnt a lot. That a lengthy campaign, far from creating a platform for intensive debate, only deadens it. That a large field of candidates, rather than introducing diversity, allows only a superficial assessment of their merits, (The ‘Newsnight’ hustings would have shamed a secondary school debating class). Most crucially, we know that the last thing a political party should do after being dumped out of office is launch straight into electing itself a new leader.
Over the past months we have been assailed by a conformity of originality. Diane Abbott promised the “turn the page election from the turn the page candidate”. Ed Balls was building a “consensus for change”. Andy Burnham pledged to move the party beyond a “London-centric elite”.
Move on? Our search for a credible leader hasn’t moved outside one family. After all the interviews, briefings and hustings, the difference between the two potential winners has boiled down to three vowels and a consonant.
Returning from holiday last weekend, I felt a frisson of excitement. “Miliband Battle Turns Into Civil War” – the Telegraph. It was short lived. David Miliband had uttered the outrageous slur, “comfort zone”; Peter Mandelson had trotted out another of his ritualistic warnings about abandoning New Labour; and Neil Kinnock had sent a letter to the Times. Yes, there’s been some handbags between the brothers (by far the worst of it coming from the Ed camp), but in terms of familial plotting they’re hardly the new Borgias. Peter’s intervention was proprietorial, rather than political, and motivated by a desire to shift books, not votes. And as for Neil’s accusation of New Labour skullduggery, having myself been on the receiving end, it looked very small beer.
One of the golden political rules is that if you don’t provide a story, the press provides it for you. Our failure to bring energy to the process has created a void that others were always going to fill. And we can hardly trash the media when we are just as guilty of constructing artificial narratives.
Someone asked me a couple of weeks ago who were my three top choices for Labour Leader. I replied Jon Cruddas, Clement Attlee and Glenda Jackson. My rationale was that Cruddas had developed an innovative and progressive post-New Labour vision, Attlee had experience of government, and my old mum was someone who stood tall on the big issues. (Plus, I quite fancied popping round for dinner at No.10 when she became Prime Minister).
So what if two of my preferred candidates aren’t on the ballot and the third is also dead? This election is not about the candidates we have, but the candidates we’d like.
Take Ed Miliband’s metamorphosis into the new Che Guevara.
A caricature? OK. But Ed Miliband, union man? Ed Miliband, hero of progressive politics? Ed Miliband, slayer of the Blairite dragon? Those aren’t caricatures. They’re definitions supplied by Ed and his own supporters.
Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson recently wrote, “[Ed] understands the vital role of trade unionism and stands for traditional Labour values”. Intrigued, I went onto Ed’s constituency web site, looking for speeches or statements about the unions. I read his speech to the Fabians in 2009. Nothing. Party conference in 2008. Nothing. Compass Annual Conference. Fabians again. I even looked at his speech to the TUC in 2009. Nothing about the link. Nothing about the broader role of the unions. Lots about wind farms.
I did find this, the sole reference he made to the unions when launching his campaign: “The trade union link matters because it is our link to working people in this country and it is very important”.
I turned my attention to Ed the radical progressive. According to Seamus Milne, Ed has, “begun to absorb the lessons of New Labour’s failure and rejected its triangulation, social authoritarianism, embrace of flexible labour markets and support for tuition fees. He has also taken the essential step of denouncing the Iraq war”. Keen to learn more, I looked for further Milnite profiles on this young firebrand. I found one, a demand for Ed to save the Vestas wind farm factory on the Isle of Wight. He didn’t. It closed.
More revealing was Ed’s voting record, as assessed by “They Work For You”. Voted “very strongly” for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws, a stricter asylum system, replacing Trident, introducing ID cards. Voted “a mixture of for and against” a transparent parliament. Voted “very strongly against” an investigation into the Iraq War.
Herein lies the problem. Listen to others and Ed is a progressive outrider. Listen to Ed himself, and a different picture emerges.
I went back and looked at the launch of the last election manifesto. The one he wrote. Friends insist he was “blocked” from writing the document he wanted. Unlike Ed, who described it as “the most radical manifesto we’ve ever had”. According to friends, “The manifesto would have been very different – and more along the lines of Ed’s campaign now if Ed had had free rein”. Except that Ed himself said, “the most important voice as far as I am concerned to listen to, as far as the manifesto is concerned, is party members. Those are the voices I’m listening to”.
Today, we’re informed that Ed is desperate to “move on” from Tony Blair. But back in April? “Labour Manifesto To Signal Return To Blairite Agenda – Last night, Ed Miliband, the Cabinet minister who drew up the 100-page manifesto, admitted that the document was more akin to the 1997 manifesto that swept Labour to power than the recent policy priorities of the Brown administration” – the Telegraph.
I don’t blame Ed for pitching left. He sought position in a crowded field, and aimed at the political space. But I can’t believe that his optimum strategy was to trade definition as the most electable candidate for the most radical. And while it’s one thing to say you can work with the left of the party, to pretend you’re of the left is something different.
The truth is that there has been no credible left wing candidate in this campaign. Diane Abbott is locked in the margins, while Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, and both Milibands occupy identical political territory. All were passionate advocates of the New Labour project. All worked in different capacities for Gordon Brown, Tony Blair or their supporters. None, when in government, deviated significantly from the New Labour line.
I’m not greatly bothered by that. They all have their qualities. And to me the election of a new leader and the renewal of the party were always going to be mutually supportive but distinct processes. But what is troubling is the way we’ve attempted to bolt unrealistic aspirations onto the candidates, rather than assess them critically.
Because we’ve been here before. Remember when we convinced ourselves that New Labour was just a means to win an election? When we told each other that we really were just adapting our traditional values to a modern setting? When we actually believed that Ministers were “talking right”, but “acting left”?
Tony Blair said he was elected as New Labour and would govern as New Labour. He did. The reason we didn’t see it coming is that we didn’t want to.
I’m not making that mistake again. I may not get to vote for my ideal leader. But at least this time, when I put my cross by David Miliband, my eyes will be open when I’m doing it.