Why are the Labour leadership contenders so weak?

In 2015 the Labour Party has been defeated in a second successive election, once more by a significant margin - and the contenders for leader don't offer much hope.

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Where are the giants? In 2001 the Conservatives were defeated in a second successive election, again by a landslide. The party’s leadership was contested by Kenneth Clarke, who had been chancellor of the Exchequer and was the only Tory politician whom Tony Blair had reason to fear. Clarke’s main rival for much of the contest was Michael Portillo, a nationally recognised figure who had been talked about as a Conservative prime minister-in-waiting for close to a decade. Even the unexpected winner, Iain Duncan Smith, born of the party’s right flank, had shadowed a secretary of state for four years.

In 2015 the Labour Party has been defeated in a second successive election, once more by a significant margin. The leadership is being contested by Yvette Cooper, best known outside Westminster for being married to Ed Balls, and Andy Burnham, chief secretary to the Treasury during the financial crisis and the health secretary who oversaw record levels of private-sector involvement in the NHS. Liz Kendall has never shadowed a secretary of state, and Jeremy Corbyn has never served on the front benches.

Small wonder that Tory MPs went off for the summer recess with a spring in their step. One minister I spoke to before the House adjourned said, “The only question for Labour in 2020 is the scale of our victory over them.”

In the halls of Westminster, it is Cooper who is regarded as the candidate most likely to triumph on 12 September, although Burnham is the favoured bet at the bookmakers’ and Corbyn is leading in the polls. The Conservatives consider Cooper the best of a bad bunch. Kendall, who once seemed a threat, is now judged to have run a sufficiently maladroit campaign for the leadership that she would make easy prey for Lynton Crosby and George Osborne.

In Whitehall, however, Cooper is regarded differently. Like Ed Miliband, she is notorious among mandarins for her inability to make decisions. At one department, she is said to have left behind a car boot full of unsigned papers and unopened boxes. At another, the minister who came after her apparently met piles of unanswered correspondence.

That said, very few New Labour ministers are regarded positively by their former civil servants. One departmental staffer estimates that, of the dozen or so ministers they served under, just three were able to make decisions quickly and effectively.

Why? This is one occasion when the fault really does lie with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Blair was uninterested in Labour’s future. He once said that he “did not come into politics to change the Labour Party” but “to change [his] country”. When he left office, Britain had been transformed but his party was, in essence, unchanged. Even the pressure group Progress, the keepers of the Blairite flame, merit only a single mention in his memoir, A Journey – 70 pages before the end.

That is why the “Blairite” candidates have fared so poorly in the leadership election. Chuka Umunna declared and then quickly withdrew from the contest. Tristram Hunt wasn’t organised enough to muster the 35 MPs he needed to get on the ballot. Kendall is far from the finished product.

Brown’s problem was the reverse. He cared too passionately about who would follow Blair and did the utmost to ensure that it would be him. The Brown camp spiked the careers of several would-be heavyweights before their man got going in 2007, managing selections to head off potential rivals, slowing the progress of ministerial colleagues who could have challenged him. This is why none of the post-Brown candidates for the Labour leadership – not the Miliband brothers, not Kendall, not Cooper and not Burnham – have looked quite like the genuine article. They survived precisely because they were never a threat to Brown.

At present, the only candidate who seems like a heavyweight is Corbyn, who came into parliament when Blair and Brown did in 1983. Yet there was a reason why Blair and Brown turned the page on that era of Labour politics: it didn’t work. It won internal elections but was barely able to secure more than 200 seats at a general election.

Either Cooper or Burnham may yet defy expectation and emerge as a credible winner – both of the leadership contest and of future general elections. If they don’t, Labour will find itself transported back to that era before Blair, before Brown: of Tory victories and Labour splits.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double