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  1. Politics
9 June 2015

We’re beginning to see the outlines of the Labour leadership race

Both Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall have reasons to be cheerful after the GMB hustings.

By Stephen Bush

The race is still open, but we’re beginning to understand the candidates a little better at least.

The hustings in front of the parliamentary Labour party didn’t do much to shake up the three-way race between Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper, but it did ensure that it won’t become a four-way. Those left-leaning MPs who could switch from Burnham’s camp to put Jeremy Corbyn left the Attlee Suite feeling more confident in their choice – Burnham’s line that the party had to be careful “not to distance ourselves from the last five years” was approvingly cited by some – which means that there is only a small chance that Corbyn will get the numbers he needs to get past the nomination stage.

Mary Creagh, too, is unlikely to get the numbers. It’s not in the interest of the Kendall campaign to have another candidate with an near-identikit message in the race and it’s not in the interests of the Cooper campaign to have another woman on  the ballot paper.

So what do we know about the candidates who will make it? Burnham seems to have abandoned anything beyond a tonal shift from the Miliband leadership, describing the 2015 manifesto as “the best manifesto that I have stood on in four general elections”.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, of course, depends on your perspective. One Burnham supporter, approvingly, told me that the shadow health secretary offers “the same gameplan, but with a better striker”, while one MP from the Cooper camp refers to him as “a Scouse Ed Miliband”. Who’s right? It comes down to the big argument of the leadership election: was it Miliband’s personality, or his programme, that turned off voters?

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Burnham is now firmly on the side of personality and tone. He sounds more reassuring than Miliband towards business, looks the part, but, policy-wise, he’s Miliband Mark Two, at least at present. That’s better news for Team Burnham than it sounds: he is, far and away, the campaign’s best assest and focussing on “Burnham the salesman” isn’t a bad place for their campaign to be.

But it will also cheer the Kendall campaign, who will believe they can successfully persuade party members that a bigger change than the man at the top is needed to win. “Don’t forget that Labour members quite liked Ed,” one supporter points out, “I don’t think they’ll be as receptive as the media thinks to the ‘It was all Ed’s fault’ narrative.”

As for their candidate, this was another tricky away fixture after last Saturday’s hustings at the Fabian Society. That she didn’t leave with a flea in her ear shows that she can win, and she burnished her credentials as the most unambiguously pro-immigration candidate out of the three contenders, repeating her “Labour must offer a chance, not a grievance” one-liner. That may be enough of an offer to the party’s “soft left” for them to look over her policy heresies if they think that she’s the candidate best placed to win in 2020.

As for Cooper, her campaign still looks like it has a problem with definition. Her performances are getting better all the time but it’s still a struggle to complete the sentence “I’m voting for Yvette Cooper because…”. 

You can see the outlines of her support base – members who think it’s time for a woman but don’t want a candidate from the party’s right, activists who want Andy Burnham but are uneasy about his Blairite past – but both those groups are likely to be just as turned off by her hostile tone on immigration as they are by Kendall’s heresies and Burnham’s U-Turns.  If Cooper comes second, she ought to win on second preferences. But the real risk is that her core is simply, in her own words, “too narrow” – and instead of pulling off an astonishing victory, she comes a humiliating third place.

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