Why the next Labour Leader may just be rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic

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May 21, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith

So we are to be denied the opportunity to see a public school educated history professor called Tristram try to win back Bury North for Labour. Such a shame for us neutrals, but the extent to which it is a shame for the Labour Party that both Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna – both of whom could possibly have won back those middle class voters that just couldn’t bring themselves to vote Labour once in the polling booth two weeks ago, remains to be seen. Instead, we are about to see a leadership battle most probably whittled down to three, and the open debate about where the Labour Party really needs to go next possibly stifled.

It is worth explaining the level of challenge Labour faces over the next five years. On a fundamental level, they want to return to government, but to do that they need to win 100 seats, which is a swing of over 8%, which means for instance they would have to win Iain Duncan-Smith’s seat in Chingford, a sign of just how far they would need to go. As Hunt said in his speech to Demos yesterday – the electoral battle is on three fronts – “The rise of nationalism in Scotland; A lack of trust in historically Labour communities across the Midlands and North of England; And a loss of confidence in Middle England about the Labour Party’s ability to manage the public purse and protect family finances.”

Hunt also quoted the words of Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, written in 1983, just after the crushing defeat in the 1983 General election in which Labour had literally lost million of voters, but which, as Hunt points out, could have been written on May 8th 2015 – “Unless Labour can once again become the party of the majority of the working class it has no future, except as a coalition of minority pressure groups and interests. Yet there is only a modest future for a party which represents only such groups, and social forces on the decline. If Labour cannot get back the sort of communities represented by Stevenage, or Harlow, or Swindon, or Slough, we can forget about the British or any other realistic road to socialism.”

Yet we have a leadership contest that looks to be dominated by a candidate in Andy Burnham who started his campaign at the point he was appointed Shadow Health Secretary by Ed Miliband a few years’ ago. Burnham constantly carped about a “privatisation” (although it was nothing of the sort) that he himself had been involved in starting ten years before, and constantly assured NHS workers that more cash would come under a Labour government with little by way of reform. Then, having talked about the need for an integration of health and social care, when the Tories announced that would happen in Manchester, Burnham came out against it.

No wonder Len McLuskey of the Unite union has already said Burnham is the candidate he is “most impressed with”. No wonder Labour MPs have been briefing journalists off the record about being bullied into being on Burnham’s nomination papers. No wonder Tristram Hunt found when phoning around MPs to try to get the 35 nominations he needs he found that the bulk of MPs were already committed to Burnham or Yvette Cooper. Five days after the election.

The Labour Party would have been best served by having the six candidates for leadership that was possible under their system of 35 nominations per candidate. This would have resulted in the wide-ranging discussion required to make sure they can develop a proper response to the re-establishment of Tory dominance over the election system. Harriet Harman is wrong to demand “unity” – there was an astonishing show of unity behind Ed Miliband in the last election campaign and look where it got them. Now is the time to properly discuss where the party should go.

Instead, we have two candidates in Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper who hark back to the old school of Labour politics, and one, Liz Kendall, who is going to have to hold the torch of Labour modernizers by herself, since Mary Creagh by all accounts doesn’t look like she will get the nominations either. I fear it will not be enough, and the winner will simply be re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

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