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Five candidates without “the vision thing”

Labour’s leadership campaign is drifting badly, with none of the contenders able to describe what th

The Labour leadership election is starting to resemble Tony Blair's "masochism strategy". Week after week, the candidates traipse around the country to address the party faithful at various hustings while answering near-identical questions on cuts, Trident, Iraq, immigration and the rest. There will have been 56 hustings by the time the final debate between the five candidates begins on 16 September, on BBC1's Question Time. But will we still be paying attention? Or even be awake?

This is Labour's first leadership contest in 16 years, but already there is a sense of drift and ennui. There is no great ideological difference between the leading candidates, with even the left-winger Diane Abbott doffing her cap to the achievements of the Blair-Brown years and offering familiar neo-Keynesian remedies to the country's economic problems. It is difficult to be "distinctive", concedes one candidate. Listen to Andy Burnham positioning himself for the leadership: "I can give the Labour Party something the Tories don't have: a leader that people can relate to . . . a people person." It sounds like a pitch for the leadership of a student union, not an aspirant prime minister.

Ed Balls says his campaign "is about fighting for jobs and fairness against Tory-Lib cuts and to stop the unfair VAT rise". But those are tactics; where's the vision? Meanwhile, David Miliband aims "to bring vision, values and victory to the Labour Party". Hmm. Nice alliteration, but not exactly original, David.

Platitudes and pieties

Some in the party are beginning to wonder whether the field is too wide after all.

“The Tory party used its leadership contest in 2005, between David Davis and David Cameron, to thrash out a lot of contentious issues and it helped that in the end there were only two candidates, from different wings of the party," says Richard Darlington, head of the Open Left project at the think tank Demos and a former adviser to the Labour government. "So when Cameron was elected leader he had a proper mandate."

Senior party figures I've spoken to are divided over the campaign. "This contest needs a much higher level of intellectual and ideological debate," says a former cabinet minister. "It's not forward-looking enough," argues another. "There's too much discussion of the past." But an exasperated Labour frontbencher counters: "You can't expect these candidates to come up with mini-manifestos in the middle of this campaign. That's unrealistic and unnecessary."

I happened to chair a different type of hustings at the Commons on 13 July, a "hustings of ideas" organised by Demos and involving not the Famous Five themselves, but proxies tasked with making the case for their respective candidates, on the basis of policies rather than personalities. Yet still, dismally, there was limited evidence on display of the frank and open debate about issues and ideas that the party urgently needs to engage in, having lost five million voters since 1997. Sitting in the wood-panelled committee room 14 of the Palace of Westminster, I listened to how Ed Miliband wants "a more equal society", in the words of his supporter Sadiq Khan, the shadow transport secretary. "David [Miliband] is opposed to inequalities of power and not just of wealth," remarked Douglas Alexander, the shadow international development secretary and chair of Miliband Sr's leadership campaign. "Andy [Burnham] believes in fairness," claimed Hazel Blears, the former party chair who spoke on behalf of the shadow health secretary.

These platitudes and pieties are frustrating. The leadership candidates are, by and large, ­intelligent, sincere and articulate - but their aims, values and, dare I say it, ideologies remain unclear, even after five weeks of exhausting campaigning. Despite the dozens of hustings, debates and interviews, none of the five candidates has yet been able to offer a convincing answer to that basic but all-important question: what do you stand for?

“It is time to move beyond the Blair-Brown era," the candidates mumble. Indeed, it is - but move to where exactly? Can they describe to us what a 21st-century social-democratic party would look like under their leadership?

“We have a challenge as big as anything that progressives have faced in Britain since Tony Crosland wrote The Future of Socialism," David Miliband has remarked. I agree. But faced with the triple threat of financial, economic and environmental crises, perhaps we need a modern equivalent of Crosland's 1956 tome. Does any of the candidates plan to produce one? Could they even?

“The vision thing"

On the contrary, they have all struggled with what George Bush Sr once dismissed as "the vision thing". The scandal of this contest is not that four of the five candidates are former special advisers and ex-cabinet ministers, or that five out of five of them are Oxbridge graduates, but that all five of this quintet of well-­educated, well-informed, elite and wonkish candidates have failed to come up with a Big Idea between them.

Instead, there are nudges to the left or the right, on this or that issue; shifts in tone or ­emphasis that give them room for tactical, if not strategic, manoeuvre. Ed Miliband has ditched Labour's manifesto commitment to a 2:1 ratio of spending cuts to tax rises, and has hinted he would prefer a 50:50 split. I pointed this out to a former cabinet minister, now backing the elder Miliband, who rolled his eyes and said: "You mean the manifesto that Ed himself wrote?"

Meanwhile, Ed Balls has announced that, privately, he had opposed the then chancellor Alistair Darling's pledge - later enshrined in the Labour manifesto - to halve the deficit in four years. (When I pressed Douglas Alexander on whether or not this was true, he shook his head and said there had been "consensus" around the cabinet table on Darling's deficit ­reduction plan.)

Balls has had a good week, battering Michael Gove at the despatch box over the Education Secretary's botched handling of cuts to the £55bn schools rebuilding programme. In the coming months, however, he and the other candidates have to move beyond telling us what they are opposed to or are against; they have to tell us what they are for. And they have to reach out and address the voters, not just party members.

Time is running out.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain