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12 August 2015

The time has come for Labour’s moderates to rally around Andy Burnham

There's only one candidate who can beat Jeremy Corbyn and keep Labour together, says Kevin Meagher.

By Kevin Meagher

Caught in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s remarkable insurgency, how should Labour’s discombobulated moderates respond?  What is the rational response to, seemingly, irrational times?

The only course for Labour’s instinctive pragmatists is to back the candidate best able to achieve three things. First, to hold the Labour party together. Tempers are raised and the risk of a schism becomes ever more real. The ecstasy felt on the left of the party is matched only by the nihilism on the right.

The second priority is to put the party on a path towards modernisation that will give it a fighting chance in 2020. If it becomes accepted wisdom that Labour cannot win next time, all pretence of cohesion in the party will break down. The third is to pick someone with crossover appeal who can win more voters to Labour’s cause.

Of the four contenders in the race, neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Liz Kendall fits the bill.

Corbyn’s campaign is taking place in a parallel universe where voters stand ready to answer the call for a workers’ uprising. It’s a student union campaign that has got out of control. Corbyn himself has been a model of decency throughout, but this is an uprising of purists and impossibilists. The metaphorical drawbridges of Middle England will be pulled up in fear at the very prospect of a Labour government led by him.

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Lessons the party has learned through bitter periods of political oblivion will be defiantly unlearnt. Moderates who cannot, in good conscience, sign-up for this agenda will be utterly marginalised. All the while, the left’s comfort zone will unfurl outwards into the political ether.

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In contrast, Liz Kendall deserves credit for her honesty and willingness to shake the party out of its lethargy.  But she campaigns in prose, not poetry and shows little regard for the party’s heritage. Like Tony Blair, she seeks to define herself against it. Having started with an indelicate message of “reform or die” she has discovered all too late in the day that the centre of gravity of the grassroots is now well to the left of where she (and, to be frank, most commentators) assumed it was. She is now 100-1 at the bookies (junk status to your average turf accountant) and is going to finish fourth. This presents her supporters with the option of dying a martyr’s death alongside her, or using their transfers to make their votes count in order to keep out Corbyn as their least favoured candidate.

So, then, should they back Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper and how do they choose between them? If the new leader’s three essential tasks are maintaining party unity, embarking upon a path to make Labour credible again and picking someone with genuine voter appeal – and it’s a toss-up between Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper – then Burnham wins hands down.

He has clearly run the better, more energetic campaign and polls show him as the overwhelming choice of Labour voters. Burnham is tribally Labour and, crucially, respects the party’s traditions. He is a quintessentially northern, working-class figure from the traditional right. Naturally collectivist, he is also sensible and pragmatic, maintaining a hinterland outside the infamous “Westminster bubble” he likes to castigate, (as he makes clear in an affecting video message). He is the candidate most able to bring all wings of the party together and, for moderates, he represents the best chance of stopping Corbyn.

Indeed, his appeal is wide enough to give those energised by Corbyn’s campaign a more electorally viable, mainstream choice too.  Moreover, his folksy charm and powerful personal narrative (working class boy who made it to Cambridge) resonates far beyond the tribe.

So why not Yvette Cooper? She seems content to rely on second and third vote transfers in order to come through the middle. It’s a version of Ed Miliband’s 35 per cent strategy: do enough to win, but don’t do more than enough. It wasn’t the mark of a leader back in May and it isn’t now. She has made it clear she will spend the next five years refighting the economic judgments made by Gordon Brown and Ed Balls, while, presumably, fending off associations with her husband. (Noticeably, there is no campaign video of her at home with the family). In this respect, she is the genuine “continuity Miliband” candidate and, therefore, a guaranteed loser in 2020.

If a Corbyn victory gives moderate members nightmares and a Kendall triumph is the stuff of idle daydreams, there really is only one reality-based option: vote for Andy Burnham.