Labour hustings verdict: The candidates are awful, but Kendall is probably the least awful

Last night confirmed what everyone already thought: Labour is in serious trouble. Any Tory tuning in will have been immensely comforted by the spectacle of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn and Liz Kendall in Labour's first leadership hustings.

None of the candidates are particularly inspiring. None offered a political assessment of the country or the party which was in any way original or revealing. Two of them – Burnham and Cooper – seemed to have no political assessments to offer at all. The remaining two were playing old tunes, Corbyn from 80s, Kendall from the 90s.

Kendall's politics happen to be the most misguided of all the candidates. She wants to embrace the right in a way which does not correspond to the evidence of electoral demand but instead follows the prescriptions of right-wing newspapers. Such a move would give up on Scotland, worsen the party's performance in its heartland and try to fight the Tories in a battlefield of their choosing, where they are consequently likely to win. She parrots the usual Blairite line of 'what matters is what works' on, say, private service provision in the NHS, but she is apparently oblivious to the fact that private involvement in public services is typically financially disastrous and operationally ineffective. As with most fundamentalist defenders of the free market, she is uninterested in evidence of what it actually does within public services.

Corbyn has a strong and commendable line on internal party democracy, an old-fashioned idea the party gave up on in the face of entryism from the far left in the 80s. Regardless of what the press tell you, his brand of hard-left politics actually chimes on individual issues with public opinion. But as an overall programme it is resolutely old Labour. It will be stunningly easy for the press and the Conservatives to portray him as a dinosaur.

Corbyn's individual positions resonate with public, but as a figure he will be easy to dismiss as a relic of the 80s

Corbyn seems a supremely decent person, full of the conviction and principle his opponents seem to lack. He also has the advantage of speaking using normal language, rather than the deadening robo-speak of his fellow candidates. But to succeed in putting a left-wing proposition to the electorate, you need to come at it from a different angle to the manner tried in the 70s and 80s. There is no reason why rail nationalisation can not be put forward, but it needs to be matched, for instance, by pledges on over two per cent military spending, to prevent your categorisation as a relic of the past. A Labour leader can sell a left-wing programme if it is packaged in new language and a nuanced policy position which prevents your opponents caricaturing you as Arthur Scargill. You also need an extremely charismatic leader. Corbyn simply cannot satisfy these requirements. 

Cooper, though not the front runner, is predicted by many in Westminster to snatch the prize. She's expected to pick up everyone's second-preference votes largely on the basis that she is upsetting them the least. This appears to be a campaign tactic. She is trying to get through a leadership election of a political party without really talking about politics at all. She says nothing of any substance. As shadow home secretary she was quite authoritarian, attacking Theresa May mostly from the right on issues like control orders and Asbos. We can expect more of that plus some meandering neither-here-nor-there economic policy which is sufficiently to the left to differentiate the party from the Tories, but not far enough to be labelled Red Yvette by the press. Basically there'll be even less difference between Labour and Tory economics than there already has been. It'll be tepid, unconvincing stuff. Osborne will needle away a red line and hammer her over it.

Cooper is trying to present herself as the centrist candidate

But Cooper's main problem is not, suitably enough, one of substance. It is one of presentation. She simply isn't likeable. There is a mechanical, lifeless quality to her. You do not get the sense you are seeing a real person have a conversation. You are watching a party-political propaganda machine say whatever it must to advance its position.

Burnham's politics are hardly more substantial than Coopers, although he paints himself as a more left-wing alternative. He is stronger on private involvement in public services, although this is a comparatively late epiphany, having overseen much of its implementation in office. He is similarly authoritarian to Cooper. He is also a middling media performer. However much his supporters hate the term, he is the continuity candidate.

His politics, so far as he has deemed it necessary to actually discuss them, are broadly similar to Miliband, although he can be expected to drift right, having seemingly signed up to the idea that Labour lost because it was not right wing enough. But again, Burnham's failings are not primarily political – they are presentational. He is a lightweight. He was hardly noticeably at all in government and roundly lost the leadership fight afterwards. He'd be the loser in a contest against George Osborne, Boris Johnson or Theresa May.

Burnham wants to capture the left of the party, but his opposition to private involvement in the NHS is a late development

If last night made anything clear it was that none of these candidates are likely to beat the Tories in 2020. The only one with a glimmer of hope was Kendall. She has several advantages. The first is the optics. She is simply more agreeable and natural than the others. You don't quite get the sense that she is switched on in the morning to parrot vacuous political slogans then switched off at night when everyone goes home. She is still rough around the edges and one couldn't go so far as to say that she is actually likeable. But there is at least the potential for her to connect with voters. That simply is not the case for Cooper and Burnham.

It is also true that by accepting the government's austerity argument, she wins the ability to be heard on economic issues and can launch a more effective attack on Osborne for his economic failings than is otherwise the case. This is not a pretty message to hear if you consider austerity to be the pointless, self-sabotaging mass delusion that it clearly is. But it is the political reality.

Kendall's greatest advantage, however, is that she came into parliament in 2010. To some, that lack of experience is a hindrance. They must have been watching a different election campaign. Miliband lost the election before he even became leader, when the Tories spent the summer of 2010 cementing the impression Labour was responsible for the financial crash – an absurdist fantasy which nevertheless took root. Thereafter Miliband failed to either make a big public apology for it or tackle it head on. He had to do one or the other and did neither. It sunk him, as the hostile reception from that Yorkshire TV audience showed.

Miliband failed to challenge the notion that Labour was responsible for the financial crash

Now that the impression of Labour's financial irresponsibility has taken root, only a new candidate can get past it. Burnham and Cooper will be hammered by Labour's record whenever they talk about the economy. Kendal can just say: "I wasn't there", as Miliband was able to say of Iraq. It nuetralises the issue.

Finally, that line "country comes first", which allowed Kendall to be seen as a sort-of winner last night, did exhibit a quickness of wit which suggests she could make an effective leader. It shows she is not just going through the motions, but was engaged in the debate with an eye for how evocative lines can connect with the public. It's not much, but in a debate with little to show for itself, it was the only moment it threatened to come alive.

None of this is to say that Kendall would win the election. Against any of the likely Tory leaders in 2020, she is the underdog. But she is the only one of the four candidates with a glimmer of a chance. The question is – at what price? Her politics appear so right-wing one wonders if there is even a point to having a Labour government.

But given the choice – between a left-winger without the nuanced to sell his position and three right-wingers without a useful assessment of what's gone wrong – you might as well plump for the one who might conceivably win.