Attack of the Labour clones

As the leadership contest draws to a close none of the candidates has shown anything other than blan

The Labour leadership contest has hardly set politics alight. "Boring" and "predictable" are two of the kinder terms levelled against it. How has the task of filling one of the most important jobs in politics - of potentially selecting the country's next prime minister - come to this?

Although some people have criticised the process, most would put it down to the candidates - one outsider, Diane Abbott, who has generated some sparks but lacks the credibility to win; and four senior members of the last government. Here is the crux of Labour's problem: lack of choice.

As a result, the debate has been a mix of sterility and political amnesia. The gang of four - the "geeks in suits", in Abbott's words - are hardly in a position to criticise each other over the Labour government's record. They were all colleagues around the same table, supporting the same programme. They also collectively choose to forget as much of that record as they can. Iraq? The Private Finance Initiative? The BAE bribery scandal? Growing inequality? The return of boom and bust? Rising carbon emissions? They act as if they were out to lunch while it all happened.

The leadership campaign thus reflects all that is worst in our politics: blandness, a lack of honesty, and a choice between slight variations on the same product, namely weak social democracy overshadowed by subservience to the market and international commercial interests. It is not a formula to restore faith in politics, help realign the left, or build a foundation for an assault on the coalition, let alone choose a future PM.

Fantasy candidate

So what does the campaign need? First, a candidate who recognises that pursuing security means prioritising urgent and ambitious action on global climate change, not squandering billions on the renewal of the Trident nuclear missile system.

Second, a candidate who is committed to tackling inequality. For decades, Labour has believed that inequalities can be eased by modest redistribution and that the way to persuade the haves to give up a little is to raise economic output. In other words, a bigger cake is easier to slice up fairly. Yet, after 13 years of a Labour government, levels of inequality are higher than before it came to office, and there appears to be little recognition that, for reasons of both fairness and sustainability, we need to abandon the idea of pursuing ever greater, unrestrained economic growth.

Third, a candidate who doesn't rely on conventional political tools and compromises to reach power. The Labour leadership contenders are spending more on their campaigns than the Green Party spent nationally in the general election. If a party cannot control its internal affairs better than this, what hope for it to reform politics more widely, including cleaning up party funding and ensuring that everyone's vote counts equally?

Fourth, a candidate who would contribute to the diversity of the line-up. This isn't about fulfilling quotas, but it is troubling that the "credible" candidates are all straight, white men. No doubt the blokey, even bullying atmosphere under New Labour played a part in freezing out talented women in particular; but if this pro­cess is not about closing the chapter on Brown and Blair, it is nothing.

Finally, and perhaps most important, we need a candidate who is genuinely committed to pluralism. Attention has recently shifted to the positioning of the front-runners, the Miliband brothers, with a much-hyped move by Ed to the left of his elder sibling David. Yet the fight for Labour's future needs to be seen not in terms of left and right alone, but between tribalists and their opposite, pluralists.

Tribalists and pluralists have fundamentally different approaches to conceiving power and doing politics, and very different degrees of openness to other political beliefs and traditions. The tragedy of Labour's leadership contest is that not one of the candidates - judging by their positions on political reform - is a true pluralist. Not one of them supports a proportional system of voting.

Leaving the tribe

This means that, in the referendum planned for May 2011, we will be offered the "choice" between two flavours of vanilla - first-past-the-post or the Alternative Vote. Real reform is not on the agenda. That's why, as MPs start the second reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill on 6 September,

I am tabling an amendment that would rewrite the referendum question to allow people to choose from a wider range of voting systems, including properly proportional options such as the additional member system (used in elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Greater London Assembly) and the single transferable vote (used in Northern Ireland). As the Labour leadership battle narrows in favour of the Miliband brothers, I challenge them, even at this late stage, to support my amendment, to demonstrate their commitment to both pluralism and democracy.

Until Labour moves beyond tribalism, beyond wishing the "extinction" of other political traditions, it remains destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. At recent Compass conferences, I have discussed the need for a more progressive, pluralist politics, based not on Blair's suffocating "big tent", but on a campsite of different parties and movements, sharing common values but maintaining their own identities. Labour could play an important part in that progressive alliance, but only if it can leave behind its arrogant belief in its own exclusive role. Is there no candidate willing to lead the party in that direction?

Caroline Lucas is leader of the Green Party and MP for Brighton Pavilion.

Caroline Lucas is Green MP for Brighton Pavilion.

This article first appeared in the 06 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The Pope on Trial