Watching the five Labour leadership candidates enter the final straight this week, I couldn’t help remembering David Cameron’s wicked quip about a Star Trek convention. There is indeed a hint of the Starship Enterprise with David Miliband as Mr Spock – austere, rational, borderline autistic, and Ed Balls as Captain Kirk – bumptious, over-promoted, lacking emotional intelligence. Diane Abbott is of course Uhura, interjecting every now and then from left field and being largely ignored. I see Ed Miliband as navigator Lieutenant Sulu, who knows the way ahead but sometimes has difficulty explaining it.. Andy Burnham, like Ensign Pavel, is the one whose name no one can remember.
The Labour hopefuls shouldn’t be too bothered – the creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, always regarded it as a political allegory. Nevertheless, the sense that the entire leadership cadre of New Labour are not on the planet is something of a handicap in an election race before a very down to earth media. But what is it about the Labour leadership candidates that makes them seem just a little other-wordly? I think it stems from the fact that all five are essentially policy wonks, career politicians who’ve risen to prominence in a party that has lost touch with any kind of mass popular movement.
This is a contest between professional politicians from identical backgrounds. The leadership contenders were all groomed at Oxbridge, after which they ascended the Labour career ladder: researcher/journalist, special adviser, safe seat, minister. Diane Abbott is the only one who has held no ministerial office but has her media career as consolation. With their fridge-magnet policy-speak, their regulation suits and haircuts, the Labour boys are increasingly difficult to tell apart. Perhaps Labour should just elect them as a job lot, and let them take turns as leader. Well, it would help prevent burnout.
If they all seem a little staring-eyed it is because the candidates are forever calculating their next move, constantly overhearing themselves, as they try to gauge how their words will go down with the media and elements of Labour’s electoral college. They have all become expert at positioning themselves on the Blair/Brown axis pursuing an instrumental, courtier style of politics. You could see it last week as David Miliband paid extravagant praise to Ed Balls’s economic policies – signalling to the latter that he has the job of shadow chancellor if he goes a bit tougher on brother Ed. Balls was left wondering whether or not this endorsement by Tony Blair’s “Wayne Rooney” was the kiss of death.
They are all young, and in terms of life outside the Westminster village, inexperienced. Of course, Labour has always attracted careerists. But in the days of Denis Healey, a beach master at Anzio in World War 2, and James Callaghan, a former naval seaman, you had a sense of real politicians connected to genuine political movements speaking authentic politics. They had that mysterious quality that used to be called “bottom”. Even with the generation of Tony Benn, Roy Hattersley, young Gordon Brown there was a sense that politics actually meant something and wasn’t just about looking and sounding right and not giving offence.
It was Tony Blair who turned the Labour Party into a vehicle for projecting a presidential leadership campaign rather than a participatory democracy. Conference doesn’t matter any more because votes don’t matter. The plethora of affiliated organisations from the trades unions to the co-op have very little influence – though the big trades unions remain important paymasters. Labour Party membership stood at barely 150,000 before the 2010 election, an historic low. Indeed, Labour’s ‘base’ now is really the six million public sector workers in the UK,who look to Labour to protect their jobs and pensions – but they are more of a client group than a political party with a belief-system and a programme for changing society.
Yes, the media is partly to blame and, yes, the Labour leadership contest has thrown up a few interesting policies. Andy Burnham’s call for a land values tax is long overdue and would help stabilise the economy as well as bring sanity to the housing market. Ed Miliband has called for a national minimum “living” wage of £7.60 and a high pay commission. Ed Balls is looking for a long overdue return to mass house building. Even Diane Abbott can legitimately claim that her candidacy prevented Labour slipping into a neo-Powellitte approach to immigration, blaming migrants for unemployment. Nevertheless, there is very little fundamentally that differentiates them – except their relationship to the Great Brown Blair Fault Line.
Personally, I find it hard to choose. Ed Miliband is the most original and gifted candidate in his attempt to reinvent socialism in the guise of “capitalism for the people”. But he is very young, and very inexperienced only having been an MP for five years. His brother, David, is the heir to Blair, which is a massive handicap, but at least I could see him at Prime Minister’s Question Time. Ed Balls – well, the name says it all, unfortunately, and like his mentor Gordon Brown, he is too awkward to make a good prime minister. Andy Burnham is an also ran and Diane Abbott is comic relief. No one who calls themselves socialist could send their child to a private school and retain a shred of credibility.
Who’ll win? Well, it may come down to how close they were to Tony Blair. The former leader’s astonishing intervention , publishing his memoirs on the very day the ballot papers were posted, has made this almost a single issue campaign. Blair’s bid to desecrate the political grave of Gordon Brown has lacerated Labour – forcing it to confront the truth that it remains deeply divided. Ed Miliband is likely to gain most among Labour members, since his USP is that is that, unlike his brother, was too young to have been contaminated by working under Blair. But David Miliband commands majority support among the wider British electorate, according to the polls, and I suspect this will count in a party desperate to return to offiiece.