Labour's Tough Choice

Here we go again. It seems like only yesterday that the Labour party were bickering through a painfully drawn-out leadership battle, culminating in brutal political fratricide and the reign of ‘Red Ed.’ Yet, after 5 years of ineffective opposition, and a humiliating capitulation in May’s election, it’s back to the drawing board for the opposition as they seek to anoint a new chosen one. Labour supporters will hope for a swift and smooth contest (unlike last time around): their party, clearly still shellshocked from May and scrambling for answers, appears rudderless and toothless, and in desperate need of leadership. If any more evidence was required, one had to look no further than the feeble opposition demonstrated during this session’s inaugural PMQs, which saw a jaunty, gleeful David Cameron run roughshod over any Labour MP who had the temerity to voice a query. With the Tories keeping a keen eye on who will be across the aisle from Cameron for the foreseeable future, and which brand of centre-left political opposition they will be facing, it’s time to discuss the candidates; who the Conservatives should hope for; and who would be best for Labour.

At the time of writing there are 5 runners in the gruelling race to lead the left, although with Mary Creagh’s campaign spluttering and stagnating, we can presume that she will be a non-factor in the hustings. That leaves us with Burnham, Cooper, Corbyn and Kendall - a foursome that, in name, evokes the image of a firm that should be advertising their PPI restitution services during the Jeremy Kyle Show, rather than jostling for command of a major political party.

Famed Chavez-Apologist-in-Chief Jeremy Corbyn is the rank outsider of the four - even if the Labour membership favours a push to the left, surely his particularly odious brand of far-left Socialism would prove too distasteful even for them, especially when coupled with his lengthy history of breaking ranks on party voting (defying the whip on approximately 25% of of occasions). He would however - if he were to make the ballot thanks to further voting defections from Andy Burnham’s supporters and union pressure - probably manage to cause a stir in the run-up to, and indeed during, the leadership election. Presumably he would pilfer a decent wedge of Burnham’s trade union votes, as well as garnering a sizeable groundswell of support from the hip champagne socialists found in the trendier wards of East London and other cities, no doubt in part due to his record-setting five victories in the Parliamentary Beard of the Year award. Despite this, it’s safe to say that the hirsute Comrade Corbyn won’t win the leadership, no matter how many dated anti-Thatcherisms he can pull out on television during his anti-austerity bleating, so at this point we can usher him back to the benches with Mary Creagh.

With Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper having the requisite 35 nominations from their fellow Labour MPs (Burnham currently holds a sizeable lead with his 51, despite the aforementioned defections to Corbyn), and Liz Kendall only a brace away from having her name on the ballot, it’s a fair assumption that one of this triumvirate will be the next party leader. Despite rumblings from various factions within the party that the next leader should be of a temporary nature, with a review and potentially another leadership contest prior to 2020’s general election, it seems as if this rationale has been quashed, and whomever should triumph in this years contest will lead Labour into 2020 - a lesson unheeded from the Miliband era.

While Yvette Cooper is perhaps the most recognisable name amongst the contenders, she appears to have made a considerably smaller dent in the public psyche regarding the contest than Burnham and Kendall. She suffers from two major flaws in the eyes of the Labour electorate, which could, and most likely will, lead to a disappointing third place. Firstly, as the Shadow Home Secretary for the last four years, she is intrinsically linked with the Miliband-led debacle: that is a stench nigh on impossible to wash off, impervious to spin, and one that will no doubt cause party members striving for change in both attitude and policy to shy away from her. Secondly, and perhaps more troublesome for Cooper, is the problem that in a three horse race that politically spans but a small sliver of the centre-left wing, she occupies the middle ground. Burnham is clearly pulling to the left and subsequently will have the support of the more extreme members of the party once Corbyn is removed from the race, as well as the trade unions (arch-unionista Len McCluskey has already begun spitting thinly-veiled mandates in his direction). Kendall’s statements thus far are reminiscent of the early days of New Labour and decidedly pro-business, giving her the Centrists and former Blairites. Cooper, to borrow a phrase from her husband’s former constituency, is neither one nor t’other, which will leave her on the outside looking in come election day.

The Infamous Bacon Sandwichgate: perhaps the new Labour leader should stick to a continental breakfast.

The Infamous Bacon Sandwichgate: perhaps the new Labour leader should stick to a continental breakfast.

So who is it to be, and more importantly who should it be: Andy Burnham or Liz Kendall? If the Labour party had agreed to move forward with an initial two or three year period of leadership, with the proposed review/contest before the run-in to 2020, the choice would be simple - Burnham, at this stage, is the more accomplished and experienced politician, more comfortable with the public eye and the press (after poor Ed’s Bacon Sandwichgate, a key trait), and his push to the left would move the party just far enough away from the policies of the last 5 years to emphasise a ‘fresh start’, as well as keeping the unions and far left happy. In other words, as Labour seeks to regroup and reestablish its philosophies and policies after May’s evisceration, Andy Burnham would be the ideal leader.

However, this is not just about the next 18 months or so, it’s about finding someone who can convince the voters that Labour lost that they can be trusted with the economy, and that they can govern effectively. Labour has to look to 2020, and if they are to stand a chance in that election they must choose the candidate who can deliver those swing votes, regaining seats lost to the Tories such as Gower and Southampton Itchen, and at this stage that candidate is Liz Kendall. She has set herself out to be pro-business, and despite the delusions of the likes of Owen Jones, who would have Labour move further to the left, that is exactly what voters want to hear. Like it or not, George Osbourne has, whilst favouring business and implementing austerity policies, dug the British economy a fair portion of the way out of the rather large gaping hole that the last Labour government left it in. Therefore if Labour are to have a hope in 2020, they need to ensure that they are offering a platform that wouldn't immediately seek to undo all of Osbourne’s excellent work: a platform close to what Kendall represents. Yes, she may be inexperienced in the house, but judging by her effective evasion of several awkward questions on Sunday’s Andrew Marr show, she is quickly learning how to be a party leader.

Andy Burnham: the short-term choice.

Andy Burnham: the short-term choice.

For Labour, the choice is binary: choose Burnham and have a fiercer opposition for the next few years, but a snowball’s chance in hell of enticing the voters that abandoned Miliband in 2015 back into the Labour fold; choose Kendall and have five years of less effective opposition, along with constant consternation and hollow threats from the likes of McCluskey, but a punchers chance in 2020. 

The Conservatives should be overjoyed if Burnham is handed the reigns: with the economy blossoming, and Cameron able to govern more effectively without the millstone of Messrs Clegg, Cable and Alexander hanging around his neck, Burnham’s left-wing spiel will carry little weight in the Commons, and even less in the public eye, and his opposition wouldn't exactly cause whoever is to take over from Cameron in 2020 to quake in their boots.

As for the Labour party (if they are seriously voting with one eye on 2020), Yvette Cooper recently lambasted Liz Kendall for “swallowing the Tory manifesto”: common sense suggests that by admitting the fiscal errors of the previous Labour government, and appeasing the voters lost to the Tories (with her economical stance and championing of further devolution) and UKIP (by coming out in favour of restricting benefits paid to EU migrants), Kendall actually may just be the right woman for the job.