At the start of the Labour leadership campaign, before MP’s nominations had been recorded, things looked pretty hopeful for those seeking a radical change from the New Labour era. It seemed likely that John Cruddas, unofficial leader of the intelligent ‘soft left’, and representative of the (modernising left) pressure group Compass, would stand. He seemed set to combine the sensibility of the intellectual (holding a PhD in philosophy) with the groundedness of the activist, in touch with working class concerns around housing, minimum wage implementation and privatisation. It also seemed likely that John McDonnell, who was prevented from challenging Gordon Brown in 2007 through lack of MPs support, would also be a candidate. McDonnell, an MP since 1997, and a backbencher throughout the Labour government years is chair of the (hard left) Campaign Group and holds beliefs consistent with this; stridently anti-war, anti-privatisation and unapologetically socialist. He combines these views with great intelligence, great wit and a good deal of charm. He would have been a great voice in the leadership debate, articulating the case for genuinely left wing policies, forcing the more centrist candidates (centre right?) to justify their policies in a way that Blair of Brown never had to. Would either have had a chance? In the case of McDonnell, no, in the case of Cruddas, a very small one. They would, however, have set the debate on fire, forcing a serious re-evaluation of the New Labour era and an open consideration of what might be the way forward.
Sadly, neither made it on to the shortlist. Cruddas ruled himself out, saying that he didn’t believe he had the qualities necessary to be leader, let alone Prime Minister, and that instead he wanted to influence the policy debate and be a debate between the grassroots and the leadership. On the one hand this seemed pretty selfless, Cruddas lacking the ego necessary to want to be leader, his desire being only to get particular policies implemented. On the other hand, his decision could be seen as rather selfish. He didn’t wish to have the vast pressure and personal scrutiny that comes with being leader; this is understandable, but if so, isn’t it a mistake to go into politics at all? The only way for agendas to be implemented, for policies to be put into practice is for someone to step up to the plate and put their name to them. If the left is too principled or fearful to fight for the leadership then we’ll be forever saddled with unprincipled careerists of the right whose deepest thoughts concern how to keep Rupert Murdoch on side. If Cruddas had stood and (as most likely) come a respectable second or third, he’d have been guaranteed a shadow cabinet role and chance to build a real power base from which to set an agenda; as it is he faces another 5 years on the back benches, respected yes, but without any real influence.
McDonnell is a wholly different case. He stood, as he did in 2007, not because he had any overwhelming desire to be leader, but because he felt the necessity of there being a left wing candidate on the ballot paper. Sadly he gained insufficient support from nominations, from whom it was necessary to get 31 signatures. On the eve of the deadline, McDonnell had the support of 16 MPs, while his other left wing rival, Dianne Abbott, had only 9. Had McDonnell held firm, the NEC (Labour governing council) might have been forced to amend the rules at the eleventh hour and allow both him and Abbott on to the ballot paper. In fact, McDonnell stood down that night with the stated aim of getting a woman onto the ballot paper. This was a high selfless and principled decision, and it was key to Abbott getting on to the ballot, as all McDonnell’s supporters transferred. This was not quite enough however – a succession of Blairite MPs, including David Milliband, nominated her, and then felt extremely pleased with themselves about it. They had, they claimed, acted in the best interests of the party, for while they didn’t actually support Abbott (God forbid!) they were ensuring a full and open contest. In fact they were doing nothing of the sort.
Dianne Abbott simply does not stand up as a representative of the left. Her politics are consistently shallow, unthinking, sloganistic and based on political tribalism rather than principle. She has gained fame through her appearances on The Week, with Andrew Neil and Michael Portillo, but on it she is rarely able or willing to give intellectual justifications for her positions, preferring to denigrate her opponents. Her (impressively glossy) website has no section on policy, rather it is a hymn to her persona. I am not someone to play down the dismal record of all the parties in increasing the numbers of female and ethnic minority MPs. Abbott can be proud to have been the first black woman MP, making it far easier for others to follow in her footsteps. But this record is not sufficient for a leadership bid – identity politics is not enough for a candidate that aspires to run the country. On policy she has made good left wing noises about regaining the civil liberties agenda from the coalition, and reasserted her opposition to the Iraq war. But where is the detailed set of policy prescriptions on the economy, on constitutional reform, on Labour party democratisation? If she were putting forward a detailed leftwing policy agenda, the other candidates would be force to engage with it, having to justify why they disagreed with it.
In the absence of such detail, the other candidates can give the impression of being somewhat left wing without having to spell out what this might mean. Ed Milliband is doing this particularly well, setting himself up as the soft left candidate in contrast to his distinctly Blairite brother, talking vaguely of change and renewal As a result of this positioning Ed will probably win, due to 2nd preference votes. But what policies does he actually believe in? Even Tony Blair managed to sound like some kind of socialist in 1994. Without a serious, thoughtful left wing candidate to flush the others out, we are left guessing; desperately hoping that the Blair years aren’t about to repeat themselves.