Sunday 26 July 2015

Labour's race for 2025 (sic)

The calculations of most political observers about Labour's electoral chances in 2020 focus on seats, Scottish Nationalists and political dynamics. Yet, there is also a broad consensus that, at the last election, the party had the wrong leader. Anybody who carefully listened to Diane Abbott on This Week any time before May 2015 knew it. Miliband was never going to be prime minister (Abbott always put it diplomatically: 'he might win'). The fact is that the gut feeling of moderate centrist floating voters (of which Abbott is none, yet I am indeed) is often right. Ed Miliband never looked like a prime minister in waiting and everybody knew it from the moment he looked flustered (and haplessly) around on stage as his victory was announced.

This 'gut feeling test' does not just work for the Labour Party. It goes for Conservative candidates as well. Michael Gove just won't be living in Number 10, no matter how radical he is in the various jobs he will hold in the next 5 years.

Much has to do with fluency of delivery in front of cameras and rhetorical discipline (both things easy to credit Gove with) but there is also stature and self-belief. Take all of these things together, and you have a credible prime minister in waiting.

This brings me to the four leadership contenders of the Labour Party who are currently slugging it out at hustings. Anybody of moderate central political views will see the same: four candidates with the calibre of leading the party in opposition but none to lead them to power in 2020.

First there is Liz Kendall, who still lacks the rhetorical fluency of Tony Blair and his polished media performances. Then there is Yvette Cooper who will probably make a suitably ruthless party leader (though with an unappealing hairstyle). Next there is Andy Burnham who would be clobbered with his dire role in the Staffordshire NHS scandal every time he would appear at the dispatch box (I also find his looks slightly creepy). And finally there is Jeremy Corbyn who probably would induce laughter on all benches if he ever makes it to the dispatch box at all (does he have a duffel coat for the celebrations at Cenotaph?).

The most interesting feature of this leadership campaign is who stayed away. Labour has credible candidates indeed, yet they have decided not to put themselves forward. There is of course Chuka Umunna who probably still needs some time to clean out some skeletons from his cupboards before he can safely stand. I would not be surprised if his girlfriend quietly fades from view over the next years.

And then there is Tristam Hunt, probably the strongest candidate for prime minister in waiting at some time in the future. He is also the most dangerous opponent for the Conservatives, given his background and already polished media performances. What he lacks (and that may have played an important role in his decision not to stand) is a top front bench job in a difficult portfolio like defence, health or foreign affairs.

There is of course no guarantee that either of them will ever have the chance to put their names forward after 2020. As George Osborne is doing a Merkel and moves the Conservatives to the centre, the Labour Party's reflex is to seek solace in the socialist nirvana of unmitigated nostalgia. But once the Coopers, Burnhams and Corbyns had their stab at failure, the Labour Party will be able to look for a credible candidate. At that time, people like Umunna and Hunt should be ready.

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