Regular readers will know that I became a member of the Labour party just after the election. Due to personal circumstances, I’ve yet to get involved in a constituency party – I’m still not really sure which to call my own. But in all honesty that may also reflect some lingering reluctance fully to nail my colours to the mast. Lefty activist and 19th most politically influential Tweeter Sunny Hundal, who rather rashly endorsed the Liberal Democrats in May, rather bashfully announced this week that he, too, had joined Labour, and for conflicted reasons similar to my own:
Given the Coalition’s agenda, the time to just shout from the sidelines and hope the system changes is over. We have to campaign for it and get involved in the political system. We have to try and influence that direction. Labour’s values used to be different, and it can change again.
The whole post is worth reading. Hundal writes of the ‘intellectual juncture’ at which Labour currently finds itself, and, as I did in June, resolves to be a part of the debate about which direction to take next.
The obvious forum for that debate is the leadership contest, which has – despite the efforts of the many who agitated for a longer period prior to the vote – failed to ignite the enthusiasm of the wider public. One says this in full knowledge that, the paper’s shameless burying of the headline figures aside, this week’s Guardian-ICM poll put the Tories and Labour neck-and-neck on 37% each. Nevertheless, the leadership election’s media presentation has been slight compared to the Cameron/David bout of 2005. In no small part, this lack of coverage mirrors my own lack of inspiration: what fresh ideas the runners and riders have espoused have been buried under a crowd-pleasing and insipid niceness.
Most notably un-nice has been Ed Balls, who has run by far the most pro-active and impressive campaign, attacking the government and causing Michael Gove, his opposite number at Education, real trouble; but Balls is tarred with precisely that ‘un-nice’ tag, and the party seems desperate not to appear bullish or combative after the bunker years of Brown. This has given the nice-guy Andy Burnham his chance, but, despite some appealing lines of argument dealing with breaking down elites and broadening the party’s base, he has failed to prove himself either eloquent or coherent. Diane Abbott, meanwhile, has never broken free of accusations of tokenism: she is there to bang the socialist drum, but depressingly her championing of women’s issues in particular seems limited to being herself a woman.
This, of course, leaves the two Milibands. Here lies the real problem with the contest: the two frontrunners are both thoroughly predictable and, you know. Related. David is impressive – fully and comprehensively briefed, and, dare one say it, Prime Ministerial. But we all know that, and we know his Blairite weaknesses, too. His brother, on the other hand, aims to ape his brother’s cool and calm exterior, but add to it the piss and vinegar of a Junior Common Room firebrand. The reader may read between the lines here a certain lack of awe. Ed Miliband has, for this party member at least, performed a quite unconvincing jink to the left, and wholly failed to articulate his vision of the party beyond a sort of kumbaya co-operative which will very much hate the Liberal Democrats (or at least Nick Clegg). Dull, preaching-to-the-choir stuff.
So Miliband The Elder probably deserves the eight-point lead he had in late July. Whither the race has since gone is an open question, but The Younger has adopted, if anything, less, not more, consistent messaging. Peter Watt was right, of course, when he wrote this week on the excellent Labour Uncut that the new leader will need quickly to define a narrative quickly once he (or, ahem, she) is elected. To do so, though, he (or, ahem, she) will need something approximating a coherent, complete story about themselves (or else, as James Forsyth notes, the Coalition will do it for them). That leaves David Miliband and Ed Balls standing – however seductive Burnham’s soundbites, he lacks an holistic vision.
Balls and Miliband are two quite different candidates, and of the two only the latter seems likely to triumph. It remains a shame, though, that my continuing indecision is less a result of a closely contested race between big ideas and passionate speakers, and more a result of the uninspiring effect of candidates pillow-fighting their way to power.