In the oft-quoted cliché, they say a week’s a long time in politics. So the Labour leadership campaign, which will reach 134 days – amounting to more than two terms at Oxford – before its conclusion, has gone on for a very long time indeed. Yet in all that time very little has changed.
There are ten days to go until votes for the new leader will be counted up. And still the words the pundits were uttering on 11th May, when Gordon Brown resigned as PM, largely hold true. Miliband (D) remains the man to beat. Miliband (E) remains the only one with a realistic chance of doing so, with Ed Balls widely disliked and tarnished by his association with Brown, and Diane Abbott too erratic to be a plausible leader. Then there is Andy Burnham, who just simply cannot get noticed. Despite the impressiveness of some of his rhetoric, this is hardly surprising in a contest in which he is the fourth Oxbridge-educated white male between the ages of 40 and 45.
There is indubitably an underlying sense of disappointment in this election. This isn’t even entirely down to the quality of the candidates – both Milibands have their virtues, while Ed Balls has done a superb job laying into hapless education secretary Michael Gove in the Commons. Indeed, Balls’s performances suggest a shadow chancellor-in-waiting, though Labour would be more prudent to allow him to continue savaging Gove, perhaps the weakest member of the cabinet.
But the campaign could have been enlivened by the presence of Jon Cruddas, the left-wing MP who’s a favourite of many Labour loyalists, and former home secretary Alan Johnson – noticeably older, though far from a dinosaur at 60, and a genuine believer in electoral reform. Interestingly, both these MPs have come out in support of David Miliband – suggesting they are cynically hankering after jobs in the shadow cabinet, or they believe Miliband (D) is the only plausible further PM of the five candidates.
There has been some genuinely interesting intellectual discussion of Labour’s future in the campaign, although not as much as could have been hoped. In 1980, the future of the party was decided by the defeat of the centrist Denis Healey by the left-wing radical Michael Foot, which many credit with the formation of a new political party, the Social Democrats (who later merged with the Liberals). Clearly, such ideological differences that do exist between candidates today seem trivial in comparison.
Burnham’s suggestion that all work experience should be transparently advertised, so preventing the situation whereby contacts matter infinitely more than competence, would genuinely help social mobility. But much of what’s been said has been predictable, and predictably shared amongst the candidates. New Labour is dead, mistakes were made but the government should be proud of their successes. The only voice that seems radically different is that of Abbott, but sadly the interesting things she has to say are drowned out by comments like justifying sending her son to a private school, having lambasted Tony Blair for doing the same thing, with the words “West Indian mums will go to the wall for their children”.
So in a sense Labour is ending the campaign very much as it began it, with the only question being which Miliband will become their new leader. Ed, more pugnacious, radical and likely to mark a genuine break from the New Labour project, would be the wiser choice. These things are all relative in 21st Century British politics, but he would offer a more left-wing voice than his brother – as they both admit. This is even more crucial in light of the number of those who consider themselves ‘left-wing’, voted for the Lib Dems this year and simply wouldn’t be attracted to a Labour party trying to be more ostentatiously centrist than ever.
Those who scoff that it all doesn’t matter are very wrong: whoever is elected could well become the next Prime Minister.