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19 May 2015

Is Andy Burnham inevitable?

A series of canny political moves and a slew of endorsements have put Andy Burnham in the driving seat as far as the Labour leadership race is concerned - but the race isn't over yet.

By Stephen Bush

“Well, that’s it then,” one Labour staffer observed late last night, “It’s over.” Dan Jarvis, many in the party’s preferred candidate for Labour leader, has just endorsed Andy Burnham for the Labour leadership. Add that to a series of overtures to the party’s right flank, both through his policy language and his choice of campaign manager, the Blairite Lord Falconer, and Burnham’s candidacy looks near-unassailable. Is the Labour leadership race over before it starts?

It may not be as done and dusted as it first appears. At this stage last time, it was David Miliband who had assembled an array of backers from across the party, who had made the early running on television and in Westminster, but he went on lose. Like Burnham, he secured counter-intuitive endorsements, like Jon Cruddas and Dennis Skinner. It made no difference. Burnham, to my eyes, is a stronger frontrunner than the elder Miliband, but he could still come a cropper.

An unlimited number of endorsements from fresh-faced members of the 2010 intake, like Jarvis and Rachel Reeves, won’t make Burnham, an MP since 2001 and an ever-present on the frontbench since 2005, a fresh face himself. Fears that any leader who is associated with the last Labour government will be doomed to failure were a key motivation for those backing Jarvis or Chuka Umunna, who has yet to endorse a candidate.  Burnham, as a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Secretary of State,  will struggle to convince if the question on members’ minds is “who can deliver a fresh start?”

More than a decade in the Commons brings with a voting record not wholly in line with the concerns of Labour’s selectorate, particularly on gay rights. (Burnham voted against allowing lesbian couples to have IVF.)  

And then there’s Mid-Staffs. Having served as both a minister and Secretary of State at the Department of Health, the affair will certainly be brought up by the Conservatives if Burnham becomes leader. But it may stop him getting there in the first place. Ed Miliband’s campaign never briefed the press about David Miliband and the Foreign Office’s possible involvement in torture – but fears reached the membership nonetheless. Mid-Staffs could yet have the same effect, and anxiety over the scandal was one reason why some MPs and party officials, wanted Owen Smith, the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, to run.

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But the biggest case against all of the candidates so far is the desperation with which the membership have turned to a series of dark horses, like Keir Starmer, the former Director of Public Prosecutions and newly-elected MP for Holborn & St Pancras. Labour’s activist base is clearly unconvinced by what they have on offer. A big prize awaits whichever of Burnham, Cooper, Kendall or Creagh can convince that there is more to them than it first appears.

Now listen to Stephen discussing the Labour leadership contest on the NS podcast: