There were two moments that made my heart sink yesterday.
One was Andy Burnham unveiling a measure on housing reminiscent of the Ed Miliband approach which saw Labour lose to a poor Tory government that will continue making Britain even more divided and unequal than it is at present.
The second was Yvette Cooper telling the audience at a hustings in Nottingham there was nothing she was prepared to say that Ed got wrong during his five years in charge. And getting a cheer. There are indeed many things that Ed got right as Labour leader, not least his determination to call out a number of vested interests and challenge the idea that entrenched inequality was a basic and unchangeable facet of modern economies.
As a person, that drive, combined with his warmth, generosity and humour brought him love and respect from Labour activists. But his basic approach failed. It led to our devastating defeat in a general election we should have won. And the causes Labour members hold dear will suffer because we fell so badly short. The scale of Labour’s defeat means the leadership election has to deliver real change for the party stand a chance of winning again in 2020. All candidates have so far talked the language of change, but it is critically important that what they actually mean is properly examined.
If those who seek to take his place think the route to victory in the leadership contest is Continuity Miliband with a different accent or gender, or with a higher level of emotional connection, they will consign Labour to another defeat. If that happens, Britain will face another decade of Tory government from here, not just another five years. Under Ed’s leadership, Labour too often combined tough left-wing rhetoric with policy proposals that the public simply did not think were credible.
If Andy and Yvette agree with that analysis they are choosing a funny way of showing it. Andy’s latest proposal to seize houses owned by private landlords and give them to councils is precisely the kind of measure that the public just rejected at the ballot box as unworkable. Similarly, Yvette has a laudable pledge that Britain should build 300,000 new homes every year to tackle the country’s chronic housing shortage. But if the public were not convinced we would fulfil our 2015 manifesto pledge to build 200,000 annually, it is not clear how simply promising an extra 100,000 will change their minds and sweep us to victory.
The reason I am backing Liz Kendall is that so far she is the only candidate who actually sounds like she is genuinely committed to changing our approach to win back those who had no love for the Conservatives, but who voted Tory because they felt we were not up to the job and were not speaking about the things that mattered to their lives. Liz shows an inspiring determination to reclaim fiscal responsibility as a Labour value combined with much greater focus on the huge inequality of life chances that still holds the country back. Her commitment to return Labour to its roots as a party that exists to hand genuine power down to communities and individuals is exactly where we need to be.
Currently, Jeremy Corbyn is getting a great reception at events with Labour members. A round of applause in a hall of activists does not necessarily translate to a majority of votes in the wider selectorate that will choose Labour’s next leader. If it does then we can wave goodbye to any hope of electability for the foreseeable future.
Yet Labour will be in equally great peril if Jeremy’s presence on the ballot distracts attention from the fact that two of his rivals are currently offering only superficial modifications to the Miliband approach that just consigned us to one of the worst defeats in our history. It is time to step up debate on the genuine choices that face those who will vote in this vitally important leadership election process.
John Woodcock is the Labour & Co-operative MP for Barrow & Furness and a member of Liz Kendall’s leadership campaign.