Thursday 20th May 2010 | 07:00
Will any candidate tell Labour the hard truths it needs to hear?
In the Spectator's political column this week, Political Editor James Forsyth considers the Labour leadership race
The entry of a forty-something, privately educated white male Oxford graduate into a political contest normally does little for its diversity. But when Ed Balls jumped into the Labour leadership race he did at least expand the pool beyond members of the Miliband family. Even now, all three candidates read the same subject at the same university. If Andy Burnham joins the fray, though, there will be a non-Oxonian candidate. Burnham went to Cambridge.
For the People’s Party, the self-proclaimed champions of the working class and diversity, it is a bit embarrassing that all the likely candidates to lead it are Oxbridge-educated white males. But this problem goes beyond appearances. All four of these men have come off the political class production line. They have been special advisers, become MPs and been fast-tracked to ministerial office and then the Cabinet. They have all been with the Labour party since the early Blair years. They are too intimately involved in the whole Blair-Brown project to fundamentally rethink it.
Jon Cruddas, a Blair union-fixer turned MP who resisted the lure of ministerial office, could have questioned some of the fundamental assumptions of New Labour. Having spent his time campaigning against the BNP rather than in a Whitehall office, he has a bottom-up perspective on where New Labour went wrong. But he has, sadly, decided not to stand. John McDonnell, that tribune of the hard left, is trying, as he did in 2007, to find enough MPs to sign his nomination papers. His candidacy will wrongly suggest that the party faces a choice between New Labour and unreconstructed socialism.
Labour finds itself in an odd position right now. On the one hand, it has its second lowest share of the vote since universal suffrage. On the other, it is only 68 seats away from having a majority. Its total number of seats — 258 — is quite respectable. Since 1884 there have been only three occasions when an opposition with as many seats has failed to win the next election. Labour’s chances will not be harmed by being the only major party opposing a Con-Lib coalition about to impose the deepest cuts in postwar history.
Far from being vanquished for a generation, Labour is in a surprisingly good position to counter-attack. But if it is to win the next election, it must work out why it lost the support of five million voters between 1997 and 2010, and what it can do about it.
Ed Miliband, the younger brother, won a standing ovation from the Fabian Society conference on Saturday for his answer. Labour didn’t regulate the banks enough, failed to understand that immigration was a ‘class issue’, broke trust over Iraq and was too casual about civil liberties. Miliband minor’s delivery was impressive, even if beforehand he was so nervous that he was (I am told) visibly shaking. But his speech was a crowd-pleaser rather than a serious effort at answering the question. It was rather like a contender for the Tory crown declaring that the party didn’t win because it didn’t cut taxes enough, gave too many powers away to Brussels and underfunded the armed forces. That analysis might be right but it is also what the audience wants to hear.
At the last Labour conference, I watched Ed Miliband — a more natural political performer than his brother — tour the fringe. Labour audiences bond with him. They respond to the way in which he talks about himself as part of the Labour family. There’s a feeling that this son of Ralph Miliband is ‘one of us’; the audience on Saturday were willing him to succeed. But he rarely uses this connection to tell the party things that it doesn’t want to hear. Indeed, he’s surrounded himself with people who couldn’t imagine why you would be anything other than Labour.
There are also questions about how cut out he is for the leader’s job. One veteran of Tony Blair’s Downing Street told me that ‘Ed Miliband’s not a bad guy. But he can’t take a decision.’ His handling of the manifesto process has reinforced these doubts.
By contrast, David Miliband has a more complicated relationship with his party. He is perceived as being a Blairite, which isn’t really right — he was moved on from the Downing Street policy unit because he wasn’t Blairite enough on public service reform. He has struggled to recover from his flirtations with challenging Gordon Brown for the premiership. This, together with his striking range of peculiar facial expressions, has served to reduce his credibility.
As Foreign Secretary he had to spend a lot of time defending wars that were not popular with Labour members. (Ed was lucky enough to be in charge of charities and combating climate change, two topics bound to earn you brownie points with Labour people). In front of an audience, David lacks his brother’s easy charm — Ed can forge a connection with an audience while David too often comes across as patronising. The elder brother also behaves, at times, like a member of the political aristocracy. One Labour MP is enjoying telling colleagues that Ed Miliband and Andy Burnham have both called him personally to ask for his support in the leadership contest, but that David Miliband is too grand to do that: he had a member of his campaign team call on his behalf.
Miliband major, though, has a more sophisticated take than his brother on why Labour lost. He’s prepared to point out that the party is out of power, in part, because it abandoned its reformist drive on issues like education and antisocial behaviour: dangerous things to say in a party that, in the words of one Labour campaign veteran, ‘really wants to blame the public for its defeat’.
The non-Miliband candidates are probably scrapping over the runner-up positions. Andy Burnham will get considerable support from his fellow north-west MPs; there’s speculation that Hazel Blears will back him. Ed Balls is every Tory’s favourite candidate. They think that his tribalism, lack of communication skills and aggressive manner make him the perfect opponent for the coalition. Balls is clearly trying to soften his macho, bullying image. He has let it be known that he suggested to his wife, Yvette Cooper, that she should run instead of him. But his association with the worst excesses of the Brownite political culture will probably be his downfall.
If the contest does end up being between the Miliband brothers, Ed Miliband has one significant advantage: the voting system. Labour uses the transferable vote to select its leader, which benefits the candidate who offends the fewest number of electors. So, Miliband minor’s reluctance to tell his party any hard truths could stand him in good stead — even though it is disastrous for a general election and the party’s hopes of returning to power.