Leader: Start talking to the country, not just the party

From the first official hustings, hosted by the New Statesman on 9 June, there have been clear differences of opinion among the five Labour leadership contenders, not least between the two front-runners, David and Ed Miliband, who disagree over the most contentious issue of the New Labour era: the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

On domestic policy, all the candidates are tilting leftwards and are at least attempting to be bold, even if at times they seem to be conducting a private conversation, addressing the party rather than the nation - as Tony Blair did so successfully when he ran for the leadership in 1994, or David Cameron did when he became leader of the Conservative Party in 2005. Mr Blair and Mr Cameron used their contests as extended exercises in positioning; they demonstrated that their parties had been chastened by defeat and were prepared to listen and change.

Over the past 12 months, we have urged Labour to push for more extensive regulation of the financial sector and to rediscover its commitment to the core value of equality - not the imposition of it, but the promotion of it by the state. It is impressive, therefore, to see that the candidates are making a concerted effort to break from New Labour orthodoxies. David Miliband has called for an extension of the bankers' bonus tax, the introduction of a mansion tax on properties worth more than £2m, a "Robin Hood tax" on financial transactions and the abolition of charity status for private schools. Ed Miliband has spoken repeatedly of how inequality scars our society and has lamented how "the party of the minimum wage somehow became the party of maximum flexibility . . . for employers". Ed Balls has said he is opposed to the last government's pledge to halve the deficit in four years. Andy Burnham regrets how Labour came to be seen as the party for "elites".

All five candidates are progressive on income tax, with Ed Miliband and Ed Balls calling for a 50p rate for those earning over £100,000. But none of them is sufficiently pluralist in the way Jon Cruddas would have been, had he run for the leadership with the support of the Compass group. None of them quite seems to understand how hollowed out the Labour Party has become, how diminished and compromised, and how traumatised by the long Blair-Brown wars, with their pernicious culture of briefings against colleagues. And they are all, perhaps, still too statist by instinct.
With the exception of Ed Miliband on the issue of civil liberties, the candidates are insufficiently interested in promoting liberalism and the redistribution of power. At our hustings, not a single candidate supported proportional representation.

Yet we are persuaded that the candidates have been thinking hard about where Labour should position itself if it wishes to win power again and what its values should be. Each has distinctive personal qualities, too. David Miliband projects prime ministerial authority and has credibility as a former foreign secretary.

In his interview with Jason Cowley on page 24, his brother, Ed, portrays himself as the "head and heart" candidate, unafraid to attack "technocrats" in the New Labour establishment. As for Ed Balls, he is Labour's most trenchant street-fighter; his denunciations of the coalition's economic and education policies have dominated the contest. Andy Burnham, the outsider, will have done his front-bench career no harm by standing and, in spite of his impeccable New Labour credentials, is unafraid to speak of "socialism". For him, the purpose of Labour is to challenge inherited and elite privileges. Diane Abbott, popular on the left of the party, may well fare better in the final poll than many expect. Whatever happens, she has made her mark as the first black contender for the leadership of a major British political party.

In this issue, at the midway stage of the contest, we interview all five leadership contenders. We shall continue to listen to their views and will offer our final endorsement of a candidate toward the end of the campaign. By late September, no matter who wins, Labour must be prepared to unite, fight and, ultimately, govern again.

This article first appeared in the 26 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: leader of the Labour party