The party needs a lesson in history more than a new frontmanby John Harris / July 16, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
After nearly two months of hustings, speeches, and the odd bout of internecine nastiness, it does not feel as if the Labour Party’s contest to pick its new leader is going to start fizzing with ideas and excitement. The result will be announced at a special conference on 12th September in London, whereupon the new leader—in all likelihood, the current Labour health spokesman Andy Burnham, or Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary—will stare out at a party still reeling from the disaster of its general election defeat on 7th May. Politics being politics, the new leader will have to gee up his or her troops for the election of 2020, a contest in which Labour will somehow have to win back at least 106 seats to triumph, and which, to judge from Cooper and Burnham’s leadership pitches, it may well fight on a introverted, nostalgic platform.
Of the four candidates for leader who made it over the qualifying threshold (having the support of 35 MPs) the north London MP Jeremy Corbyn is there, according to many of his supporters, to ensure a “proper debate” rather than to win. The noise around his campaign indicates that a good deal of the Labour tribe would rather do anything than stare, unblinking, into the future. You could say the same of Cooper or Burnham, and many of their supporters.
The one candidate bold enough to face the future is Labour’s shadow care spokesperson Liz Kendall, who talks with all the vim and brittle confidence of a contestant in The Apprentice. Kendall is often called a “Blairite,” though she has little of the hopeful, communitarian rhetoric that brought Labour to power nearly 20 years ago. Tony Blair offered a vision of a Britain in which “your child in distress is my child, your parent ill and in pain is my parent, your friend unemployed and helpless is my friend, your neighbour, my neighbour.”
Kendall’s most celebrated quote so far is the observation, taken from the late New Zealand Labour Party leader Norman Kirk, that “what most people want is something to do, somewhere to live, something to look forward to, and someone to love.” That may be true, but it does not amount to much of an animating purpose.