Steve Richards: Labour: can't go back, can't go forward

If it is electorally fatal for Labour's aspirant leaders to move a few millimetres to the left they might as well give up and spend more time with their families

Thursday 22 July 2010 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The current Labour leadership contest is attracting poor reviews in the national media and among the party's MPs. With a hint of despair, some MPs note that this is the first proper campaign since 1994. Surely it should be bursting with life and a sense of fresh opportunities.

The criticisms are largely misplaced. The contest was doomed to seem peripheral, and would only have come alive at this stage of a parliament if civil war had erupted. Indeed some of the critics in the media were confidently and joyfully predicting meltdown in the Labour Party after the election. Now they complain that the contest is too dull because the candidates are not tearing each other apart.

In his recent and outstanding book on the Conservative Party during its long phase in opposition after 1997, the author Tim Bale writes of the extremely limited space in which politicians function most of the time. He points out that between 1997 and 2005 it was obvious that the Conservatives had to change in order to win an election. All three leaders during that period, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, knew this, and began their spell at the top of their party by declaring their intention to modernise. In each case they failed to do so and returned to the agenda that had lost the Conservatives the previous elections.

This was partly because they had no space to make the moves. The party did not want to change. The Conservative-supporting sections of the press were opposed to change. The more desperate the Tories became the more they returned to policies that had lost them elections and were bound to do so again. After three election defeats, David Cameron had a lot more space to do as he pleased but he was not immune to the syndrome, soon returning to the party's old incredible pledges to cut taxes, having insisted he would not do so.

I am not suggesting that the winner of Labour's contest is in a similar position in having no space in which to move. Labour's next leader will indeed have more room than the Conservatives' vote-losing leaders did after 1997. And Neil Kinnock was even more constrained in the 1980s. The Liberal Democrats' alliance with a Conservative leadership means that the victor of the current contest will have significant opportunities as the only alternative to the increasingly fragile coalition.

But for now the candidates dance on a tiny corner of the political stage and there is not much any of them can do about it. Leadership contests held in the immediate aftermath of a general election always seem less important than those that take place some time afterwards. A new government is on a honeymoon and commands the most interest, especially this one. The Conservative leadership contests seemed pretty dull and irrelevant in 1997 and 2001. Even in 2005, few paid much attention. Only towards the end did David Cameron's candidacy come alive.

In contrast, there was much excitement when Labour staged a leadership contest in 1994 just as John Major's Conservative government was falling apart. There was a stronger sense that the winner would be Prime Minister fairly soon. Even then Tony Blair was cautious, in some ways more so than the candidates seeking the crown now. It was only once Blair was safely elected that he proposed to abolish Clause Four of the party's constitution, his famous symbolic move away from the past.

Gordon Brown would have done the leading candidates a favour if he had stayed on for a year, partly to give them time to be tested in opposition and also because a contest would be seen as much more significant. By then the coalition's survival will be the subject of persistent speculation.

Inadvertently, Ted Heath did Margaret Thatcher a huge favour by remaining leader after he had lost a second election in 1974. Not only did he give her more time to develop in opposition, he granted her a shadow Treasury brief and she thrived, often getting the better of the Chancellor, Denis Healey. Within months she won a contest. Those months had made a pivotal difference.

Brown was never going to stay on. Currently he can hardly bare to spend time at Westminster as a backbench MP, and would have found being a stand-in leader of the opposition unbearable. The space in which the candidates campaign is defined by events and personalities out of their control.

In that tiny space the contest is reviewed too dismissively. There has been quite a lot going on and a few surprises. The contest between the two Miliband brothers is quite something, a mini-psychodrama for those getting withdrawal symptoms from the Blair/Brown relationship.

Ed Miliband is the candidate who espouses social democracy most fervently and in a way that is wholly in line with his views over recent years. David moves away from his caricature as a "Blairite" because the stereotype is false.

The timing is particularly bad for Ed Balls. As Labour seeks to move on from the Brown era, Balls stands as the candidate who was closest to the defeated Prime Minister. He could have sunk without trace. The opposite has happened, at least in terms of his national profile. He almost transcends the impossible context by a hyper-active campaign. Last Monday he was on the Today programme exposing the flaws in the government's plans to introduce so-called free schools. On the same morning he had published an article putting the case for a Keynesian approach to the economy. By midday he was leading a protest against cuts to the schools building programme. He is alert to any weakness in the coalition. Personal attacks explode around him but he keeps going.

Peter Mandelson has said the contest has gone "slightly wrong" because in his view the candidates have vacated the centre ground for David Cameron to occupy. This highlights Mandelson's narrow view of the centre ground. Arguably the coalition is well to the right, at least in terms of its economic policies. If it is electorally fatal for Labour's aspirant leaders to move a few millimetres to the left they might as well all give up and spend more time with their families.

The winner will not see much of his family for some time to come. Yesterday's Prime Minister's Questions provided a reminder of how challenging all elements of the job can be and how one performance can change perceptions. Jack Straw, one of the most experienced parliamentarians with an unusual affection for the Commons, stood in for Harriet Harman. He had six questions against the inexperienced Nick Clegg, standing in for Cameron. Straw blew it, asking questions that were far too long and failing to follow up Clegg's contradictory answers about how long British troops would remain in Afghanistan. If Straw had been Labour's long- term leader he would have been slaughtered.

I make one prediction on the basis of discussions with quite a lot of Labour MPs. Such is their loathing for the coalition that they are deadly serious about returning to power as soon as possible. If their next leader flops in the first year or so there will be no sentimentality. He will be removed.

Dullness can be deceptive. The stakes are very high in this contest and will continue to be so for whoever wins it.

For further reading

'The Conservative Party: From Thatcher to Cameron', by Tim Bale (Polity, 2010)

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