UK Politics

Labour leadership race enters decisive phase

Labour leadership candidates

At last, Labour's leadership contest is getting interesting. Or so we are told.

After a long summer of repetitive campaigning and at times desultory debate, the Miliband brothers are finally taking each other on, Lord Mandelson has joined the fray, and the autobiographer formerly known as Tony is breaking his omerta. And many political journalists - me included - are returning from their holidays and turning their attention to a contest they have thus far ignored.

So herewith eight truisms about Labour's leadership contest:

1. For all the talk of front runners, there isn't one.

So far, no single individual has emerged from this leadership contest as the stand-out, no brainer, automatic candidate who the party believes can lead them back to the promised land. Yes, the ultimately successful contender may be a Miliband and they may win by a healthy margin - but they are likely to have to do it by winning other candidates' second preferences. Tony Blair did not have to do that.

2. The fraternal differences between the Milibands are exaggerated.

If you believe some commentators, Ed Miliband is a leftie Trot who wants to return Labour to its socialist heyday of 1983 while David Miliband is a Blairite uber-moderniser who wants to out-Cameron Cameron by appealing to aspirational middle classes and no one else. Let me simply note that the candidate wanting to end the charitable status of private schools, introduce a mansion tax on £2m properties, and criticised Tony Blair for failing to tackle inequality is, er, David Miliband.

3. The war of words about New Labour's legacy is fun but less important than might appear.

Ed Miliband must take some responsibility for poking this particular ants nest. In a speech last Friday, he used the phrase "New Labour" 15 times, promising to move beyond New Labour's "comfort zone" and escape the "ghosts" of the 1980s, such as a fear of raising taxes or criticising markets. Blairites such as Lord Mandelson retaliated by warning against taking the party up a cul-de-sac, and old stagers such as Lord Kinnock fought back. All jolly stuff but there is quite a lot of misinterpretation going on here, not least in how you define New Labour. One man's comfort zone is not always another's. But nota bene: they are talking about how to move on from Tony Blair's legacy, not Gordon Brown's.

4. There are policy differences that matter, not least over the deficit.

People - and not just those who have a vote in this contest - want to know what spending the next Labour leader would cut if the coalition suddenly implodes and they find themselves unexpectedly in Downing Street. David Miliband backs Labour's existing policy of wanting to cut the deficit in half over four years. Ed Balls says that is too fast. Ed Miliband says elliptically that the party's existing policy is a "good starting point" but says he would raise more taxes and cut spending less than Alistair Darling planned.

5. Ed Balls is fighting a better campaign than some in the media are giving him credit for.

His critics portray him as a one-club bruiser who is good at duffing up ministers but bad at winning popular support, an old Brownite who cannot escape his past. But while the Milibands and their teams are getting caught up in fraternal friction and verbal spats with Peter Mandelson, the shadow education secretary is plugging away, challenging Michael Gove's education plans and churning out policy programmes. There is a whiff of quixotic authenticity about a candidate who promises to keep spending public money when the consensus calls for cuts.

6. Andy Burnham is pitching himself as the new Harriet Harman.

He told the BBC on Tuesday: "I'm in a strong third place, but I'm gaining momentum. Harriet Harman was in the same position for deputy leader. I have great support from the grass roots - I don't need support from the media or Labour establishment."

7. David Miliband has a curious affectation for alliteration, assonance and odd phrases.

He wants Next Labour, not New Labour. He says he's a battler not a bottler. He says politics is about people. He thinks Labour's good society can beat the Tories' big society. He tells audiences: "We have arrived in different ships but are in the same boat now." No, I don't know what it means either.

8. The contest will largely be decided in the next few days.

Two-thirds of the electoral college - the members of the party, the members of affiliated unions - are expected to vote in large numbers this week as soon as their ballot papers arrive in the post. Hence the frantic campaigning. The exception is the other third of the electoral college - the MPs and MEPs - who tend to wait and vote later. They have until Wednesday 22 September. Not only do some MPs want to make sure they don't back a horse that stumbles in coming days but they also want to protect their careers. Why? Because their votes are recorded and will later become public. They don't want to back a loser - or fail to support the man or woman who could one day give them a job. Choices, choices.

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