Labour faces a fight for its very survival. Andy Burnham is the man to put the party back on track

2015 might not be rock bottom for Labour. It's vital the party picks the right leader.

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If you’ve got any doubts about the scale of the danger which our party and our country faces, have a look back at last week’s debate on the future of our economy and witness the breath-taking ambition of George Osborne to divide Britain and rub out the Labour movement. Just as in 2010 he sold the myth that the global recession was caused by UK public spending, Osborne is now selling the lie that the Tories are the party to unite the workers, and that One Nation can emerge, phoenix-like, from the nationalist flames he fanned so hard at the election.

The truth is that division is both the means and the end for this Chancellor and for his party. Public versus private, England versus Scotland, the ‘aspirational’ versus the ‘undeserving’. Those are the dividing lines they played with such brilliant effect during the last five years, and he sees no need to change strategy now. If anything, the evidence is that he’s decided to double down on the bet, in the hope that he can play us out of the game for good.

And let’s be clear, the stakes are now that high. Our fortunes may not yet have hit rock bottom and there are no guarantees that we will bounce back. Not unless we fight, and not unless we get our strategy right. Central to that strategy –though by no means the only card – is who we choose as leader. It is to Ed Miliband’s great credit that he has left us with a far more democratic and equal system for that election than we had in the past. But that also means every party member has a duty to think hard about their decision, and a responsibility to try and get it right. And for MPs, who from today can nominate their choice for leader, the duty applies in spades. 

To me, getting it right means picking a leader who can win in 2020, because without power we are nothing. In opposition, we can do precious little to build the more equal society we believe in. Nothing to turn our values into action. Nothing to change slogans into programmes. Never let us forget that we are not a debating society, nor a protest movement. We are a Labour Party, born out of the trades unions to give political voice and – critically – power to ordinary, working people. Anything less is failure - and the people we really let down when we fail are those that rely on a Labour government the most.

Now that certainly isn’t to accept that we win at any cost, or that our values are biddable for power. We must always be clear about why we want to win, and be true to it when we do. For me, as a socialist, that means building a fair economy and a just society, in which everyone has a chance to prosper, no matter their background or birthplace. The policies we put in place to achieve that goal will often need to change, and the presentation of our party may also need to change, but the objective must be constant.

Labour needs a leader who gets that first and foremost. One who understands who we are, why we’ve got to win, and what we need to do to get there, with our values intact. And Labour needs a leader who understands how much danger we are in right now, and how hard we will need to fight to come back.  Those qualities are not to be found uniquely at one point along a left-right axis in the Labour Party. A modern, winning prescription for our party will not be found in the policies of Hardie, Bevan or Wilson. Nor in a Tory-lite replacement of citizens with consumers or of collectivism for choice.

Those are false choices for our party and it is only in the interests of our opponents that we accept them. Our party has always been a vehicle for the aspirations of people across class and income divides. Even in our earliest days we sought to represent the interests of working and middle class voters. And throughout our history, at our best, our most effective and electorally successful, we have been the party for blue and white collar workers, urban and suburban voters, for the vulnerable and the comfortably-off, for Wales, for Scotland and for every part of England too. And our aim today must be to be nothing less than this in future.

I sat in yesterday’s leadership hustings for the Parliamentary Labour Party, and saw five talented and committed Labour men and women grappling with these questions. All of them would fight for our party and for the values we hold in common. But Andy Burnham stood out as the leader who has thought hardest about the battle we face to win back trust. The leader best equipped to get out there and do that in every corner of Great Britain. The leader, as he puts it, to restore the ‘emotional connection’ between our great party and the people we seek to represent. And that is why I will be nominating Andy later today, and urging all my colleagues to do likewise. 

Owen Smith is shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland and MP for Pontypridd.