Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Labour leadership: The contenders

Last Thursday I covered the Labour leadership electoral system in all its glory. Nominations close tomorrow, so I just thought I'd look over the contenders and their chances.

David Miliband is the usual favourite. The son of a Marxist economist Miliband was Tony Blair's head of policy before entering parliament in 2001. During Euro 2004 I recall watching Tony Blair answer a parliamentary question comparing him to Sven Goran Eriksson, the upshot of Blair's response was to suggest that Miliband was his Wayne Rooney. Miliband was Britain's youngest ever foreign minister. Extraordinarily intelligent, Miliband is not as well known for his charisma. That said, he is not a bad media performer, he is just not as polished as Cameron or Clegg. It may be that this allows him to present himself as more substance than style, especially as people inevitably tire of the current government. It is said that he performed well at the first leadership hustings. Miliband enjoys massive support amongst the parliamentary party, as of this moment the Labour website lists 74 nominations for him, and it is likely that people like Frank Field, who have nominated other candidates in order to widen the field of contenders will get behind him on the actual ballot. Miliband's potential problems lie amongst the wider membership and the affliated societies. Being the frontrunner is not always a good thing, and Miliband may well be seen as too attached to the previous Labour leadership, and as he is widely seen as a Blairite, too attached to Blair specifically and a cleaner break with the past may be desired.

Ed Miliband is nipping on his brother's heels. In much of the press the leadership is seen as the 'battle of the Miliband's'. With 59 nominations behind him Ed has done well for himself. The former Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Ed is seen as a good performer, and thoroughly progressive. The fact that he was named by the Daily Telegraph as an expenses 'saint', also works in his advantage. While he was certainly a supporter of New Labour, he enjoys the support of the UNITE trade union and Tony Benn, likely to reassure the left of the party. My personal fear is that he may have peaked too early. Once tipped as the dark horse of the contest, he now risks being seen as just as establishment as his brother. While Ed is usually seen as a Brownite, he is not seen as overly factional, and is the closest thing to a 'unity' candidate running in the contest. Ed appears popular among the grassroots, and with UNITE's support is likely to do well amongst the trade unionists as well. He also enjoys the support of my sister, who deems him 'hot'. While David is supposed to be the frontrunner I think Ed is the most likely winner, assuming he can maintain momentum, which is a big if.

Ed Balls was Schools Secretary in the last government. With 33 nominations behind him, Balls has exactly the number required to reach the ballot tomorrow. Balls is known for his combative, tribal, style, rather than the calmer, more intellectual, more pluralistic style of the Milibands. This may work well at the leadership hustings, where diatribes against the new government will probably go down well. Balls' has big issues with expenses, and only won his seat by a small majority, after the Tories targeted him for decapitation. Balls has an advantage in his Schools Ministry, which is likely to come under more attention than those of other party contenders, and therefore propel him into the media spotlight. I would say that Balls is the least likely of the contenders who have currently reached the nominations threshold though.

Andy Burnham is relatively unknown compared to the other candidates. Gordon Brown's last Health Secretary, Burnham was widely seen as an extremely competent and likeable cabinet minister. Currently Burnham is two nominations away from reaching the threshold, which he is likely to get. I would watch out for Burnham, if that cabinet likeability extends into solid media performances Burnham could well come from nowhere. There is a trend at the moment of young, talented politicians seemingly coming from nowhere to the public stage. Think Obama, think Cameron in 2005, think Nick Clegg's bursting onto the scene with the debates. If Burnham can pull this off, he may well achieve victory. In Burnham's favour is his background. The son of a telephone engineer from Liverpool, Burnham is genuinely working class, a factor that is likely to work in his favour amongst trade unionists, and to a lesser degree, activists. He has also been a member of the Labour Party since he was 14. Working to his disfavour is his record on expenses, which is not as bad as Balls', but still not a cause for celebration. Nonetheless, I think Burnham is one to watch, especially if Ed Miliband starts to lose steam.

John McDonnell is the leader of the Socialist Campaign Group, the group of 'Old Labour' MPs. The standard-bearer of the left McDonnell, is unlikely to reach the necessary nomination threshold, and is likely to withdraw in favour of fellow left-winger Diane Abbott.

Diane Abbott is primarily notable for being the only person in the contest who isn't white and male. On the traditional Labour left of the party, Abbott is mostly known for her appearances on This Week with Andrew Neil and Michael Portillo. Currently she has the lowest number of nominations. While he has more nominations, it is foreseeable that fellow left-winger John McDonnell will withdraw in her favour, and his supporters will nominate her. It is likely that if he withdraws Abbott can win more nominations than McDonnell, among those New Labour MPs who want to see a black woman in the race. Harriet Harman has said she will nominate Abbott for instance because she wishes to see a woman in the race. It is difficult to see Harman backing McDonnell. If she reaches the ballot, Abbott's chances will be about zero, but a left-wing black female voice in the contest will help to broaden the terms of the debate.


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