Labour’s choice is only between differing shades of Blairite
Anyone reading today's papers would assume that Labour are in the middle of a great ideological battle between a union-backed left-wing faction and a business-backed Blairite faction. According to this reading, Andy Burnham represents the retrograde forces of the left, while Liz Kendall represents the modernising forces of the right.
This fight is already being played out on social media, with many Labour activists treating it like a defining battle for the very survival of the Labour party.
But does this portrayal reflect reality? Yes it's true that the Labour-affiliated unions are more likely to choose Andy Burnham, while more right-leaning members of the party are more likely to choose Kendall. But this is not a choice between two radically differing views within the party. This is a choice between slightly differing shades of Blairite.
No objective observer could reasonably describe any of the candidates as being on the left of the party. Even Burnham, who has been portrayed in the press as Len McCluskey's placeman and "Ed Miliband with a Scouse accent" would in any other contest be reasonably labelled as a Blairite.
Before Burnham became a frontbencher, he worked for leading Blairites Tessa Jowell, David Blunkett and Ruth Kelly. Among the names already endorsing him for leader are Rachel Reeves and Tony Blair's flatmate Lord Falconer. These are not people normally associated with a far-left takeover of the Labour party.
Of course it is true that Burnham is slightly to the left of Blairites on some issues like public service reform. However, he is also slightly to the right of them on issues like immigration and the EU. Asked on Saturday what direction he would take the Labour party, Burnham listed three priorities: winning economic credibility, tackling immigration and becoming a pro-business party. This is hardly the agenda of a hard-left radical.
The Labour left may end up rallying around Burnham as their least worst option but there is so far very little enthusiasm for him. Leading Labour left-wingers Ken Livingstone, Diane Abbott and Owen Jones have already highlighted their dissatisfaction with the current candidates. McCluskey may have backed him, but for many others on the left the race can be summed up in George Galloway's words as "a donkey derby" with Burnham as merely the least unappealing ass.
Why doesn't @lisanandy stand for Labour leader? Strong, courageous, principled, would fight for policies that could inspire millions.
— Owen Jones (@OwenJones84) May 17, 2015
The left should not rush to back any candidate based on the economics and politics of the debate at #pac15
— Ken Livingstone (@ken4london) May 16, 2015
— Ken Livingstone (@ken4london) May 18, 2015
Of course this is not how those on the right of the party see it. This Saturday I attended the annual conference of Blairite pressure group Progress, where the leadership candidates all gave their pitch. Burnham was received politely but sceptically. His call for limits to private involvement in the NHS was met with silent shakes of the head from the crowd, while calls from other candidates for more radical reform of public services were met with rapturous applause.
But Burnham also used his pitch to call for a more pro-business approach with lower taxes on "aspiration". Anyone hoping that Burnham will carry the burning torch of socialism into the next general election will be sorely disappointed.
But by far the most telling moment of the hustings came when news emerged that leading Blairite Jim Murphy had survived a vote of no confidence. The news was greeted with the kind of ovation normally reserved for the triumphant winner of a landslide majority, rather than a politician who has just presided over one of Labour's worst defeats in its history.
For many years Blairites have prided themselves on being the wing of the party that "likes to win" and does "whatever works". This is obviously not a sentiment they extend to Jim Murphy's management of the Scottish Labour party.
Blairites also often quote Blair's doctrine that politicians should be free of ideology. In reality many of his followers are as ideologically driven as any trade union general secretary.
To these people Burnham's opposition to NHS privatisation and free schools appears dangerously un-Blairite. But in reality he is only doing what Blair himself did in opposition. Blair realised that he had to move his party to where voters were rather than the other way around. Burnham realises the same. His opposition to NHS reform, his support for an EU referendum and his calls to reduce immigration may place himself at odds with Tony Blair, but it also places himself firmly where the majority of voters now are.
If Burnham does emerge as Labour's leader there will be some Blairites who will be disappointed. However, there will also be many who realise that Burnham is someone they can easily do business with.
Because the truth is that whoever wins this selection, the great left-right race in the party finished as soon as Ed Miliband stood down. Not only have the Labour left already been beaten to the finish line, they don't even have a donkey in the race.