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15 July 2015

Harriet Harman shows just how hard the next Labour leader’s job will be

That Harriet Harman doesn't have enough goodwill to take Labour to the centre doesn't bode well for Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper. 

By Stephen Bush

Here’s the big secret of the Labour leadership election: there is not, really, all that much difference between Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall.

They’re all moderate social democrats pursuing run-of-the-mill centre-left policy programmes. There are minor divisions on policy here and there, but the significant divide is one of tone.

That’s because the Kendall camp believe, in the words of one aide, “you’ve got to give the same answers. The things you say at this hustings have to be the same things you say on Marr, have to be the same things you say when you address Labour party conference as leader for the first time”.

“You have to win the leadership election to win the general election,” one Cooper-supporting MP told me recently. “You can’t fight two elections at once,” was the despairing verdict of one Kendall-inclined staffer.

Who’s right? The hostile tone of Kendall’s Facebook Q&A yesterday suggests they might both be. Thus far, it appears that no amount of worthy, left-wing policy on early years, ending tax reliefs or implementing a genuine living wage will make up for Kendall’s early heresies on free schools and defence spending.

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But that suggests that the next general election might yet be decided on the back of Cooper’s insistence this week that Labour didn’t spend too much before the financial crisis, or Burnham’s aside that the 2015 manifesto was “the best” he’d ever stood on.

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More troublingly, that much of the anger towards Kendall is also being directed at Harriet Harman suggests that taking Labour to the centre might be more difficult than it first appears. I used to think that Kendall’s problem was that a few months ago, most members hadn’t heard of her, and their first introduction to her was in support of the hated free schools programme.

But now, their deputy leader – the architect of the Equality Act, an MP of 33 years standing and one of the party’s most successful advocates for feminist ideals – suggests that it might be a good idea to oppose some, but not all of the government’s welfare bill, and is almost immediately branded a Tory.

If Harriet Harman – remember that for 20 of those years she’s been in opposition – is a secret Conservative, she’s been putting an awful lot of work into her disguise. She may be wrong to pick, child tax credits and not another aspect of the welfare bill to abstain on. But her record deserves a better hearing that she’s got from her party – and her parliamentary colleagues. That Labour won’t give Harman the benefit of the doubt suggests the party faithful are not in a listening mood.

It all suggests that when whichever one of Cooper or Burnham emerges as the winner delivers their first conference speech, they may quickly end up in the same dead end as Harman and Kendall are now.