Comment: Leadership race shows Labour has run out of ideas

Diane Abbott's lack of support shows how tired and conservative the Labour party has become.

By Ian Dunt

The labour leadership contest really is turning into a damp squib. After 13 years in office - the last five years of which it spent resembled an aching old man unsure of how he got into his living room - it has lost sight of why it exists.

Labour's better-than-expected electoral performance, delivered on the back of some very clever, and some particularly nasty, local campaigns, seems to have deprived it of the impetus to redefine itself. The dark night of the soul hasn't come.


The unprecedented numbers of new MPs hasn't helped. If this race took place in a couple of years time, many of them might have run, and many of them, it's worth mentioning, would make fine leaders. Now, however, is not the time, given they are still working out how to reach the toilets in Westminster without getting lost in its seemingly endless corridors. The young bloods are too young. The old guard are tainted and useless.

The response of the parliamentary party to the leadership contest demonstrates its caution, and its fundamental inability to grasp that its entire political philosophy has to change. The belief that market freedom can be used for redistribution is dead following the financial crisis, when the private sector was revealed to be even more counter-productive and inefficient than the public sector. The party's inability to adopt a critical attitude to the state has been rejected by the public. It's managerial, system-based approach to public services has been shown to be severely limited. The former Cabinet ministers running for leadership were either unaware of this, or too cowardly to do anything about it while in government.

David Miliband has some good qualities. He was impressively on top of his brief while in the Foreign Office and his appearances at select committees and ministerial debates showed he is not someone to be taken lightly. But he has not shown any political views which distance him from New Labour dogma. His comments on the end of Blairism and Brownism, two laughably over-used phrases considering the miniscule policy differences between the two men, is no substitute for action. Those awful descriptions will disappear when Labour finally gives up on its New Labour variant. His failure to criticise neo-liberalism, or statism, or authoritarian criminal legislation, or the management-speak rhetoric which has so alienated the electorate, puts the lie to his professed desire for change. Worst of all, his response to the Binyam Mohamed case revealed how low Labour had fallen in its disastrous commitment to the 'war on terror'.

Ed Miliband, meanwhile, delivered an impressive speech to the Fabian Society announcing his leadership bid. He spoke intelligently about immigration, civil liberties and the limits of the state. But he remains a policy wonk, a creature of Westminster, just like his brother and just like Gordon Brown. He is manifestly part of the political class which the public are - quite rightly - so suspicious of.

Clegg and Cameron are exactly the same, of course, having grown up in politics and only veering elsewhere for short stints before getting stuck in again. But being a member of the political class is survivable in the new climate, while being a policy-wonk member of the political class is frowned on, and will continue to be so until the memory of Brown fades. Ed Balls, it hardly needs saying, resembles those characteristics more than anyone.

How cautious has the parliamentary Labour party become, how hesitant and lacking in ambition, that other candidates are struggling to get any signatures? Diane Abbott has precisely none, although presumably she has a few private assurances under her belt.

Personally, I find her mannerisms a little weird, but I'm probably just sore because she turned me down for an interview once. Her politics are, to my mind, entirely respectable: decent, dyed-in-the-wool leftie stuff without any of the authoritarianism of New Labour. Now is the time for leftie politics, with the financial crisis still defining our politics and centre-right coalition government in power. She also happens to be an excellent constituency MP.

A labour party led by Abbott would suck out the novelty of a Lib-Con coalition. With a black woman in charge, standing against an old Etonian, Labour would feel refreshed and new. Also, her solid left-wing credentials allow her to oppose spending cuts in a way that seems coherent and truthful. When former cabinet ministers try it they just look like hypocrites. How much better she would be than a Burnham or a Miliband, who look identical to Clegg and Cameron, and are tainted by their ministerial career.

Now is the time for Labour to take risks. This isn't about whether Abbott becomes leader or not. It's about the parliamentary Labour party, and what we can conclude from the fact that she has secured no support at all.

Labour didn't get the kicking it needed. It simply isn't looking inside itself for how it should change. It is tired, old and, funnily enough, deeply conservative. There's clearly no appetite for radical change, and until there is, this country won't have the opposition it deserves.

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