Labour leadership candidates could really do with a bit of charisma

We need some candidates with some captivating appeal

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The Independent Online

Wanted: Some political pizzaz

Yvette Cooper was asked at the press gallery lunch last week about how she felt being the Hillary Clinton of the Labour leadership contest – the experienced candidate finally emerging from the shadow of a husband with a strong political personality. “Cool,” she replied, before adding that she’d worked on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign team in Arkansas and still has a badge that reads: “I’m backing Hillary’s husband.”

Cooper’s links to America run deep – she studied at Harvard after Oxford. And now it is her husband, Ed Balls, who will cross the Atlantic when he takes up a part-time teaching post in Harvard in the autumn. It’s only a short journey to New York, where David Miliband is based, so will the old rivals be sharing brunch at that trendy Brit gastropub the Spotted Pig some time soon? The two men are among the brightest political brains of their generation. And no matter what you think about their politics, America is lucky to have them.

So is there any chance that, in exchange, the US could send some politicians over to Britain to enliven the Westminster scene a little? Cooper put in an impressive performance at Thursday’s lunch, including some jokes that were clearly off the cuff, but the first televised Labour leadership hustings the night before were rather dull – all four candidates seemed to have developed battle fatigue, and we’re only a few weeks in. It is saying something when people start writing up Jeremy Corbyn as exciting.

Compare the race to replace Ed Miliband to the battle, now fully under way, to succeed Barack Obama. At her launch to be the Democratic candidate for 2016 last weekend, Hillary Clinton glistened with a sort of righteous, my-time-has-come charisma. Like Cooper, she had jokes – my favourite was a swipe at all the men, including her husband and the current incumbent, combined with some gentle self-deprecation: “You won’t see my hair go white in the White House, I’ve been colouring it for years.”

But her starry stage presence also showed up what UK politicians lack. On the Republican side, Jeb Bush launched his campaign with similar vigour. And Michelle Obama may not be running for president (for now at least), but her speech at the Mulberry School in east London last week left British officials in the room feeling sprinkled with stardust, I am told. By contrast, our MPs seem to be apologetic, even embarrassed, about putting themselves forward for high office.

I am not asking the Labour leadership candidates to overdo the American schmaltz and glitter – we all know how that went wrong for Neil Kinnock at the Sheffield rally. But could they not just turn on a bit of charisma? Some might say this would risk British politics becoming too presidential, but given the way our elections are so much about who will be in No 10, rather than our local MP, we’re already there. We just need some candidates with some captivating appeal to match it.

In fact, the deputy leadership contest has more life to it: Tom Watson, Stella Creasy, Caroline Flint, Angela Eagle and Ben Bradshaw come from all sides of the party, and it is a pity that the only ethnic minority candidate, Rushanara Ali, withdrew last week. But it is more than just their varied brands of Labour politics that makes this contest more appealing, it is the fact that you could imagine a camping trip with this bunch to be quite fun – Five Go Mad in Dorset West, maybe.

A baroness in the making?

I thought it was a strategic mistake of David Cameron to make Esther McVey a minister in the Department for Work and Pensions three years ago. And after losing her Merseyside seat last month, mainly due to her association with the bedroom tax and welfare reform, hugely unpopular in the North-west, I wonder if she had been given a brief at the Department for Culture – fitting, given her background in broadcasting – she might have still been in the Commons.

As controversial as the Government’s welfare policies are, McVey’s Liverpool background meant she was a rare Tory MP. She has said she wants to return to the Commons, but the next election is five years away, so does her presence in Westminster last week, chatting to colleagues, mean she is about to become Baroness McVey of Aigburth in the imminent list of peerages?

Putting the Houses in order

Having gone to school in Liverpool in the 1980s, including being taught in mobile classrooms while the main buildings were being modernised, I feel lucky to have avoided the horrors of asbestos. So it is jarring, to say the least, to learn my place of work for the past 14 years – the Houses of Parliament – is riddled with the toxic stuff. At least this is getting priority public funding, unlike the 86 per cent of schools, according to the NUT, that still contain asbestos.

But when it comes to the restoration of the Palace of Westminster, which could cost £7bn, who failed to fix the roof when the sun was shining? One thing Cameron can’t pin on the last Labour government.

There’s something about Mary

Given that the fifth wave of feminism thrives on Twitter, it is fitting that a new campaign to get the proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft recognised as an official “radical hero” by the People’s History Museum has a hashtag #GetMary.

Lord Monks, chairman of the museum’s trustees, is urging people to sponsor the campaign through The money raised to celebrate the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women will help support the museum, which is facing government funding cuts.

Twitter: @janemerrick23