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Newsnight Labour leadership debate: political heroes

A most unlikely set of political heroes was offered by the candidates last night. What does this tel

With the leadership candidates asked for a Labour political hero during the Newsnight debate, we were at least spared their tributes to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. But what an unlikely set of personal nominations we were offered. Each could be seen as somewhat dissonant with the candidate's past career or campaign message.

Most authentic may have been David Miliband's nomination of Tony Crosland, postwar Labour's greatest social-democratic intellectual voice. It was a good choice -- I think Crosland would be my (somewhat pointy-headed) choice, too -- though the shadow foreign secretary seemed irked with it and to want to withdraw it once the four other candidates had chosen actual as well as lost leaders of the party.

Yet Miliband's claim that Crosland's untimely death in 1977 robbed Labour of a great leader doesn't stand up. Crosland had his chance in 1976 and would surely not have been a candidate in 1980, nor surely could he ever have hoped to lead the party successfully by then if he had been elected. (See the end of the post for more.)

Perhaps least plausible was Ed Balls's choice of Tony Blair, citing his victory in three elections, though he was perhaps not Balls's first choice for leader in either 1997 or 2005. Balls has previously pitched for Nye Bevan.

Ed Miliband played it very safe indeed with Labour's secular saint Clement Attlee, citing the achievements of the 1945-51 government.

Yet surely the efficient managerialism of Attlee, beyond his collegiality in cabinet, provides quite the opposite model of political leadership from the inspirational "movement politics" to which Ed Miliband's campaign aspires. Attlee did not campaign in poetry; indeed, given his famously monosyllabic nature, he might even have questioned the need for any more prose than necessary when governing.

For all of the achievements of the Attlee administration's first term, he entirely failed to renew an exhausted government after 1948. Labour ran in 1950 and 1951 on an empty "consolidation" manifesto, pledging little beyond the nationalisation of sugar. The central point of Ed Miliband's campaign on values and vision is surely to make once again, after New Labour, precisely the critique put by Dick Crossman in New Fabian Essays in 1952: that Labour had "lost its way not only because it lacked maps of the new country it is crossing, but because it thinks maps unnecessary for experienced travellers".

Diane Abbott's nomination of John Smith saw the Campaign Group candidate connect to the centre-right voice most associated with the "soul of the party". That is a smart strategy as part of Abbott's broad and mainstream Labour pitch. I suspect that she may have been less supportive of Smith's short leadership from the right of the party at the time.

By my calculation, Bryan Gould must have won votes from roughly 60 of Labour's 271 MPs in the 1992 leadership election (doing much better in the Parliamentary Labour Party, where he lost 4-1, than in the other voting sections in that most one-sided contest). Most of the left, such as Ken Livingstone, backed Gould over Smith. I don't have a record of which side Abbott was on. No doubt the newspapers could check.

Andy Burnham, too, cited John Smith having pledged also to give Labour back its soul, though he offered little reason for his choice. I suspect that Burnham, who was a researcher for Tessa Jowell from 1994-97, would have been instinctively sympathetic to the embryonic New Labour critique of Smith's cautious consolidation strategy, characterised as "one more heave".

So no mention of Keir Hardie or Ellen Wilkinson, Nye Bevan or Hugh Gaitskell, Barbara Castle or Bernie Grant, Neil Kinnock or Robin Cook. The Labour premiers Ramsay MacDonald, Harold Wilson and Gordon Brown are, for different reasons, very much outside candidates, though there must be less obvious contenders, too.

So, perhaps somebody should make a note to ask the leadership candidates again for their political heroes in October.

Crosland had his chance in 1976, when he received a paltry 17 votes (5 per cent) out of a Parliamentary Party of 314 Labour MPs, finishing sixth out of six candidates, albeit in Labour's most glittering field, with Denis Healey fifth (30 votes), Tony Benn fourth (with 37), Roy Jenkins third (56) and Callaghan second on the first ballot (84) behind Michael Foot (on 90), with Callaghan defeating Foot on the third ballot.

Crosland was famously displeased that he could not even persuade his ambitious acolyte Roy Hattersley to vote for him in the 1976 contest:

When Wilson unexpectedly stepped down as prime minister in 1976, it seemed natural that Hattersley would back Jenkins or Tony Crosland, his close friend and mentor, for the leadership. But he was told by Callaghan that neither of the two right-wingers could hold the party together. Moreover, Callaghan added, they were both going to lose. And those who wanted preferment under a Callaghan administration would have to vote for him (Callaghan).

Hattersley telephoned his friend Crosland to explain his predicament. He pledged eternal loyalty -- and then broke the news that he would be supporting Callaghan. He offered to explain why. Crosland, unsurprisingly, told him to "fuck off". When Callaghan won, he rewarded Hattersley with his first cabinet post, as secretary for prices and consumer protection.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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