Political Promise

Labour Leadership Race In Detail

In Uncategorized on June 17, 2010 at 12:59 pm

By Nicky Sowemimo

Clockwise from top left; Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, Ed Milliband, David Milliband, Diane Abbott

As the initial line-up of pretenders to the Labour Party leadership revealed themselves, there was an immediate focus upon the demographics of the candidates. As the Miliband brothers, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott put themselves forward, while others such as Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson and Jon Cruddas failed to declare their candidacy as expected, commentators soon began scrutinising the numbers of women and ethnic minorities in the race.

Accusers claimed that the scarcity of female candidates was indicative of the Labour Party’s failure to do enough to recruit female politicians; that despite the imposition of all-female parliamentary shortlists and the entry of 101 much-heralded ‘Blair Babes’ to the Commons in 1997.

Other critics – many within the Labour’s own ranks – believe the situation is evidence that the party has failed to foster a belief amongst its female MPs that promotion to the highest offices is a realistic prospect, and also that the party remains stifled by an anachronistic culture of paternalism.

Such an assertion is curious; does anyone truly believe that Harman had much less of chance of victory than Andy Burnham, not to speak of the now withdrawn John McDonnell?

The absence from the contest of Labour’s current acting party leader Harriet Harman, is indeed surprising. Not only because she is one of the party’s most high-profile MPs – irrespective of gender – but also as she had been widely believed to have been long agitating for the leadership role, even reportedly briefing against Gordon Brown during his premiership.

Former health secretary Burnham – nicknamed ‘Boy’ by Private Eye magazine for his youthful looks and perceived lack of experience – is an able politician and an affable character. He does, however, lack name recognition, being him a figure not well-known to most of the public despite his recent high-profile ministerial post.

At the launch of Burnham’s leadership campaign, held in a rugby league stadium in his Leigh constituency, he stated that he “wouldn’t do anything fundamentally differently”.  Such a statement is admirable coming at a time when the frontrunners are disingenuously doing their damndest to distance themselves from the difficult decisions taken during the Blair and Brown ministries. However, such uninspiring talk is unlikely to help him draw enough support to win the leadership, and he struggled to get the necessary thirty-three nominations from the Parliamentary Labour Party to have his name placed onto the ballot paper.

The entry into the contest of Diane Abbott – the only female and non-white person in the race – prompted both sighs of relief and snorts of derision in different circles. Relief from Labour supporters embarrassed by the paucity of ethnic minority options, derision from detractors who criticise the futility of her bid.

The advent of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government brought with it ammunition which was greedily pounced upon by the liberal left. Critics have attacked the apparent cosiness of David Cameron and Nick Clegg and their similarly privileged backgrounds – both white, upper-middle class, forty-something year old, public school and Oxbridge educated males. This, added to the Cabinet composed almost entirely of white, middle class men , provided great sport to those wishing to attack Tories’ and Lib Dems’ commitment to equality.

Prior to Ms Abbott’s entry there had been much-wringing by Labour supporters those who feared the contest would fail to show the party in a sufficiently different light to their opponents. Those fears were replaced by relief on 9 June, when John McDonnell, stating his wish to ensure that the Party had a female candidate, withdrew from the race and gifted his sixteen nominations to Abbott.

This avoided leaving only the names Miliband, Miliband, Burnham and Balls; precisely the unwanted all white, all male and all Oxbridge scenario that was warned against. Those tempted to delve again into diversity bashing the Tories and Lib Dems, would do well to have a sobering thought about the method necessary to assure Abbott of her place on the ballot paper – making her the very definition of a token candidate.

Labour must be careful not to show itself to be too preoccupied with such matters. There is already a widespread belief – particularly in Labour heartlands – that the party has become disconnected from its base and out of touch with the issues that matter most to the electorate. A typical example of Labour obsession on this issue was provided in The Guardian recently by Tom Watson, Labour MP for West Bromwich East, who described the PM and his deputy as ‘mollycoddled middle-class white men’. Such careless statements – which seem to imply that there is something inherently untoward about being middle-class, male and white – risk encouraging the dangerous notions that the Labour Party is the enemy of middle England and has turned against the country’s indigenous population.

Worrying about the gender, race and almae matres of its candidates will do little to dispel these beliefs, as there is scant evidence that most voters put much stock in these questions. Despite a lengthy and determined campaign to make an issue of the privileged backgrounds of David Cameron, George Osborne and the rest of the Tories’ top team, the issue failed to gain much traction. In direct comparisons between Cameron and Gordon Brown – humble, middle class and state educated – Brown consistently failed.

In a contest where the likely winner will be either one of the brothers Miliband or Ed Balls, all of whom are so closely linked to the previous two Prime Ministers, one hopes that the choice available will prove enough to captivate the electorate.

With Abbott not a serious option, it is unlikely that the contest will provide any more dogmatic choice than the last Liberal Democrat leadership race. With no candidates bound at the time by any record of government, that bought with it a genuine choice between the more classically liberal Nick Clegg and social democratic Chris Huhne. Those differences were present throughout the last parliament, as reports of disagreements between the right and the left wings of the Lib Dems failed to subside. Most of the Labour Party’s struggles in recent years have been borne out of nothing more noble than personality clashes and megalomania.

It has long been a frustration of mine that there is a failure in the Labour Party to really debate or entertain dissent on certain issues that should be core matters of contention. Debate should be welcomed as a way of showing the party can engage with each other and the electorate, of course without entering into the type of unsightly and damaging cannibalism that the Tories used to indulge in over Europe. One would hope that the leadership contest would provide such a chance, however at present it threatens to present little more than a battle of denials and blame shifting over the mistakes of the Blair and Brown years.


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