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Tuesday, August 31, 2010 

The Labour leadership and the dead hand of the Blairites.

The voting papers in the Labour leadership contest are being sent out. In an unfortunate coincidence, the not especially heavy tome from Tony Blair, modestly titled A Journey, is also being distributed around the country as copies go on sale tomorrow. While it's tempting to suggest that it'll probably take less time to read Blair's memoir than it will for some in Labour's electoral college to make their decision as to who should follow in his footsteps, it's also an unwelcome further reminder as to how Blair's shadow still hangs heavy over the party.

For while it's almost as if Gordon Brown never existed, so quickly has he vanished from the public sphere, almost airbrushed out of last three years of history with only Labour as an entity itself being in governance rather than led by the man who so coveted the job, Blair still looms large, as does his extended entourage. While Brown has wisely stayed out of the leadership debate, even if it's easy to suspect he would probably be backing his supposed protege Ed Balls, the few remaining Blairite true believers have been making it all but clear whom they favour. Even Blair himself is apparently concerned with how Ed, rather than David Miliband could potentially undo all their hard work in creating the electoral juggernaut which was New Labour, leading the party as Mandelson put it into an "electoral cul-de-sac".

This is, if it really needed stating, utter nonsense. It is however instructive on at least two separate levels. Firstly, it shows the insecurity of the remaining Blairite clique. Whether they really believe they're potentially helping Miliband senior by implying that Ed would be an electoral liability or not is unclear, but it is an indication of how worried they are that anyone other than the person who doesn't even want their endorsement could well win the leadership. Moreover, to use a really obscure analogy, it's a perfect illustration of how unprepared they are to let their grip on the party go. For those who've seen the original Dawn of the Dead, the Blairite takeover of the Labour party was akin to how Peter and friends took control of the mall. In their eyes, they cleaned it out and made it viable, only now to see their creation potentially threatened just as the looters do the mall in the film. In reality, the mall itself, or the party has corrupted them and their values, blinding them to the realisation that they have become the thing which they themselves previously hated. Instead of letting the looters do what they're going to do and move on, the Blairites in this context are Stephen, who's prepared to fight against the overwhelming odds because "[we] took it - it's ours", only to die as a result.

It's not perfect by any means at entirely accurately reflecting the current battle within Labour, but it comes fairly close. Blair, Mandelson and Alastair Campbell feel as if they still own the party, such was their role in its initial success, and now when the party needs so desperately to move beyond the New Labour era they're unprepared to let even the slightest implied insult to their reign go without being answered. The reason why the current posturing from them against Ed is so ridiculous is also multi-faceted. Not just because New Labour so conspicuously failed just a few months ago to do what it was set-up to do, which was to win elections, but because the real differences between the two Miliband brothers are so slight. It's true that David stands for the continuation of much of what New Labour started - the public sector and welfare reforms, the centre-right, triangulating Blairite stance on foreign policy, civil liberties, crime etc - yet Ed's policies as stated are only slightly to the left of his elder brother's. He supports a living wage and a graduate tax, yet on much else they share all but the same platform. If anything, it's been Ed who with the exception of Diane Abbott has contributed the least amount of new intellectual thinking to the debate - David at least delivered a speech last night aimed at putting together a counter-argument to the Tories' already none too cogent "Big Society" gambit. Ed Balls and Andy Burnham meanwhile have both been putting forward alternative policies and arguments for what the party should be doing, whether it be Balls' proposal to build 100,000 new houses using the gap between the projected borrowing figures (not one incidentally I would support) or Burnham's creditable attempt to define "aspirational socialism", which deserves praise simply for being willing to use the long rejected "s" word.

In fact, perhaps the really odd thing is that the Blairites aren't backing Burnham. His ideas are by far the most radical while being in line with their thinking on the public sector. Like them, he doesn't see voting reform as a priority, and his support for the setting up of a national care service with a tax of 10% on all estates after death is one that deserves serious scrutiny. It's only perhaps with his apparent disdain for the "elites", whether affected or otherwise, and his espousal of the living wage that he falls down. What's more, he's also the most aesthetically similar to Blair, even if perhaps he doesn't have anywhere near to the same level of charisma. David Miliband, while the continuity Blairite candidate, knowing as he does where the bodies are buried, instead remains this wonkish, more than slightly nerdy character, hardly the most naturally gifted of potential leaders. Burnham is far more in the Blair mould in that respect.

Clearly, the leadership campaign has gone on for far too long, resulting in the candidates endlessly repeating themselves, and it will still be nearly a month before we know the result. While it's had little impact outside the party, as leadership contests as a whole rarely do, it has certainly energised critical thinking inside it, best epitomised by a couple of excellent posts on where the party's been and where it should go by Luke Akehurst, an ultra-Blairite now backing Ed Miliband for the leadership. His latest entry on the limits of triangulation is especially thoughtful and an indication of how those within the party are willing to learn from the mistakes of the past. This is also pertinent to the continuing interventions from Mandelson and friends, none of whom seem to be willing to recognise why Labour lost the election. It certainly wasn't because the party was too left-wing, as they seem to be implying is where Ed will move the party should he win and therefore make it unelectable. It was instead because it was collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions, with Brown both unwilling and unable to move the party beyond the Blair years, instead introducing and keeping with his own triangulation strategy. It was because it produced a tired manifesto, with almost no new ideas, and no optimistic vision of what Britain would look like in 5 years' time. It was because it had gotten too comfortable in power, had become dismissive of people's concerns, regardless of whether it was on immigration or civil liberties, while David Cameron gave hints of a brighter future even if in the short term he would be delivering austerity.

The real lesson of the election should be that there are and were millions of voters crying out for a real alternative - one which they flirted with in the shape of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats, yet decided at the last minute either wasn't realistic or couldn't be elected due to the system itself. The challenge for the new Labour leader is to try to be that alternative, redefining the party, winning over lost and new potential supporters, whilst also retaining the party's traditional base. The problem is that none of them look even close to being on the level of a Nick Clegg, and that's without the millstone of Blairite support/contempt being attached to their neck.

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