I’ve already had a couple of people ask how I’ll vote in the Labour leadership election. It’s worth noticing the coverage that contest is receiving – Labour remains relevant, and worth taking seriously, in a way that the Tories were not in 1997. Their contest of that year, ultimately a battle between William Hague and Kenneth Clarke, was reported much more as a sideshow, a comedy of errors. The Labour leadership election of 2010, whilst very much second fiddle to the Coalition’s emerging (though still confused) governing agenda, is not comparable.
All of which makes David Miliband’s last minute decision to sponsor Diane Abbott’s candidacy a curious kind of charity. This contest matters – it is serious – and to so publicly endorse a candidate with little serious hope of winning, and even less of being an electable Prime Minister-in-waiting, is an inward-looking gesture at a time when the party is desperate still to appear engaged with the outside world.
But Miliband the Elder must look inward. He is a man the general public overwhelmingly see as the heir apparent; the Labour faithful, however, are less enamoured. They are attracted to his younger brother, Ed, because he is less implicated in the worst excesses of the New Labour years, but also because he has hit on the comforting language of the ‘movement’. David, too, talks about rebuilding the party and encouraging the leaders of tomorrow – but he must also actively convince the rank and file that he cares about them. His nomination of Abbott is one way of doing that.
The appearance of tokenism that this risks might have given him pause: Abbott is of course both black and a woman, and without Miliband’s support, and that of others who have declared they won’t actually vote for her (Harriet Harman, Jack Straw), she could not have made the hustings. But her main value is in forcing the debate onto issues which may otherwise have been ignored, or ones onto which false narratives may have otherwise been imposed. She will get cheers at the hustings – and this will be cathartic for a membership which have not been consulted about their leader for 16 years. As a grassroots organisation, the Labour Party is shrivelled – this is why the candidates for leader are so uniform. Part of the point of Abbott is to allow stifled opinion to be heard, to be consulted. This is a Good Thing, though Abbott herself, or the circumstances of her nomination, may not be. It remains of prime importance, however, that whoever ultimately wins must now – having secured such a visible symbol of progress within the party – ensure that Abbott’s elevation to the ballot is not merely symbolic. Work will need to be done not just on engaging the left of the party, but encouraging the greater representation of both women and ethnic minorities.
So who will I vote for? David Miliband is impressive and experienced, of course – I like how he communicates, and his intellectual approach. But his language is perhaps too technocratic compared with his brother’s. Ed, however, feels to me very much a candidate of the party – interested in reforming and restructuring without a truly coherent expression of the ends to which those efforts are directed. Ed Balls has far clearer policy positions – and is making a good fist of being a substantive, combative figure – but unfortunately those positions have so far been more populist than considered. Labour will not simply by bashing immigrants outflank the Coalition amongst working class Tories.
Which leaves the wild cards, Abbott and Burnham. Abbott is playing to the gallery, and doing it well – but whether she has a coherent plan, or indeed an extant team behind her, is at best unclear. Burnham, meanwhile, has a compelling pitch – good both on principles of policy and personal narrative – but lacks any kind of presentational flair or charisma.
None of which, of course, gets any of us any further towards having a solid opinion on who might be best for Labour. What is best for Labour, however – an outward-looking, internally cleansing, long debate – may well have already been achieved. We can but hope: the UK can ill afford in 2010 the risibly inept Opposition of the late 1990s.