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Saturday, May 22, 2010 

The Labour leadership contest: This is Yesterday.

I know you don't want to, but take a good, hard look at the four main Labour leadership candidates. Go on, force yourself. Like it or not, one of these fine upstanding gentlemen is going to become the focal point of opposition to the shotgun marriage of the Conservative and Liberal Democrats. OK, you can turn away now. Dispiriting, isn't it, to say the least? I'm reminded of both high and slightly lower culture: of Ozymandias by Shelley, looking on their works and despairing, but also of the last ever episode of Blackadder, where Melchett visits the western front and comments on the nature of the troops he will soon be sending to their deaths, to which Blackadder responds with "Yes sir - shortly to become fine bodies of men".

For all the platitudes, especially from the two Milibands, about wanting the widest possible field of candidates, this line-up is the logical endgame of New Labour, the equivalent of a policy akin to Stalin's socialism in one country. Having suffocated all dissent, centralised the party to a ridiculous extent, micro-managed the selections process to parachute in favoured, endlessly loyal apparatchiks and luvvies, these four are the perfect representation of the New Labour project, while also being the finest imaginable illustration of just how the party can no longer even begin to pretend to be representative of the country at large. It's also indicative of just how limited politics in this country has become, another of the ultimate successes of the Blair era: don't like the fact that all three of the party leaders will be male 40-somethings from the white, upper middle classes? Tough.

Just like the Conservatives toiled and struggled to escape from the shadow of Margaret Thatcher, so now will Labour desperately flail in a bid to remove themselves from the legacies of both Blair and Brown. In fact, this process was already started somewhat during the deputy leadership contest back in 2007, when Hazel Blears resorted to claiming that there was no longer any distinction between Blairites and Brownites, there was just Labour. As risible as it was then, it has something approaching a smidgen of truth now: the last three years showed just how few real differences there were between two, but then that also just shows their triumph; having all but completely recreated the party in their own image. As much as David Miliband wants to leave behind the Blairite and Brownite labels, thinking only of "Next Labour", if you remove their adherences and preferences to the two separate leaders then there are even fewer ways of explaining the differences between David, the two Eds and Andy.

In any case, if you want to show that the party has moved on, then you have to come up with policies that are genuinely different and show that you've learned from your defeat. The task facing Labour is nowhere near as unforgiving as the one the Tories woke up to on the 2nd of May 1997, and that itself seems to be shaping the party's incredibly limited post-election thinking. So wedded has the party become to the triangulation strategy it pursued without mercy or hesitation in those 13 years of power that it still believes it only failed at the ballot box because it wasn't right-wing enough on immigration, "anti-social behaviour" and on those omnipresent welfare malingerers. They've adopted the excellent class-based analysis of Jon Cruddas without endorsing his solutions of giving protection to agency workers, introducing a living rather than a minimum wage and a full social housing programme. Instead they still to seem to think the only reason the public didn't appreciate their policies was because they didn't explain them well enough, as Andy Burnham, Ed Balls and ghastly Phil Woolas have all claimed. There's an element of truth in this, but far more damaging was the failure to even begin to challenge the repeated lies and misinformation which was bellowed from the tabloids on an almost daily basis on the subject. Coupled with the decision to not even begin to defend the scale of immigration, which the public will always give credit for even if they don't agree with you, it allowed a whole series of myths to develop which will be all but impossible to shift.

One of the biggest insights into just how warped the party's thinking has become is provided by the continuing obsession with middle class benefits, as elucidated by the supposed left-leaning Ed Miliband and also by Burnham. Rather than being concerned with those losing their jobs, who could presumably be depended upon to vote Labour regardless, they instead worry about the falling disposable income of those in work, embittered that those "who weren't doing the right thing" were being "rewarded" while they had to cut back ever so slightly. Rather than dismiss this as an unreasonable grievance during a recession when everyone's spending power diminishes, the party always seems to believe that the state should do more, regardless of the cost. Labour has become caught in its own trap: why vote for a party that has moved so far to the right on so many policies when you can instead plump for the real thing in the shape of the Tories?

My initial conclusion after the election was that at last Labour could have a real debate, both with itself and the country at large about where it had gone so wrong during its time in office. Instead, it seems to have already decided that rather than oppose the Con-Dem coalition from the left, it's far easier to do so from the right. The party was always going to defend its policies on crime and civil liberties, the latter of which the two opposition parties were always to the left of Labour on, yet the all the other noises being made so far have been in much the same vein. This was where Jon Cruddas could have made such a valuable impact had he decided to stand: he may have been a loyalist with a poor voting record, but he would have pushed the leadership debate leftwards without his candidacy being dismissed as irrelevant or doomed to inevitable failure. As refreshing as Diane Abbott's candidacy is, and important as her rebuttal of the consensus on how immigration lost Labour the election also was, she's now split the left vote just as Meacher and McDonnell did back in 07, making it less likely either herself or John will end up on the final ballot paper.

Labour lost on May the 6th because of a whole myriad of factors: Gordon Brown, the recession, the sheer amount of people wanting a change, and only then because of individual policies. To limit the inquiry to just the same, familiar number of issues which the party so often focused on is a sign of how it has yet to come to terms with the defeat, let alone with how it brought so much of it upon itself through its authoritarian stance on almost any dissent or difference of internal opinion. Only by being open with itself and with its supporters about all of this can it even begin to start the rebuilding work necessary. Not a single one of the four candidates with a chance has expressed anything even resembling such doubt; and as the Con-Dem coalition looks to be far more stable than anyone could ever have imagined it would be, the time the party could have to spend in the wilderness might be far longer than the five years or less which some first thought. The party desperately needs a realistic candidate without the baggage of being a Blair or Brown supporter; it doesn't look as if it's going to get one. Next Labour looks to be a very long way in the future.

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