Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The UK Labour Leadership - How to Watch Paint Dry

The British Labour Party has debts of £20 million ($33 million) and no imaginable way of securing financial support to pay down this bank loan. The newly ennobled Lord Prescott suggests that bankruptcy is inevitable – this despite donations of over £10 million to help fight the election last May. But the bankruptcy of the Labour Party relates to more than money – they are also short on ideas.

This is surprising. With the departure of Gordon Brown from the front ranks of the Labour Party and an election for a new leader in full swing, one would think that ideas would be in abundance and that the party would be in a period of real renewal. A solid left wing candidate – Diane Abbot – and a feisty moderniser – Ed Balls – should provide the canvas for a robust and thorough debate about the politics of the left and the nature of “new” Labour. But the election, now widely seen as a choice between one of the two Milliband brothers, David and Ed, has been as dull as dishwater and is exciting as watching paint dry. There is no doubt that the Miliband brothers are the most talented Labour figures of their generations – it just was not a very inspiring generation of Labour leaders in the first place. At the moment, it is too close to call between them. The election results will be announced at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester at the end of September.

At stake is not just the nature of left wing politics in Britain, but also the quality of political debate. As the Conservative-Liberal coalition continues to demonstrate its ability to tackle the key issues in innovative ways, disaffecting of the centre-left in both governing parties (especially the Liberals) is strong. The opportunity for Labour is to provide an ideological base for a centre-left analysis of Britain and the opportunity to rethink solutions to the challenges which Briton’s face. These challenges – the out of control welfare state, an unsustainable health care system, an education system which shows few improvements over time and a sluggish economy – all have the appeal of requiring radical solutions while at the same time costing less money.

Labour is currently damaged goods. There is no doubt that Gordon Brown’s inability to govern Britain honestly and effectively will taint any attempt to reposition Labour and Blair’s duplicity in the Iraq conflict continues to harm the reputation of the party. But Briton’s can be very forgiving, especially if the party has fresh thinking and new solutions to offer.

Yet nothing imaginative or creative has appeared in the four months of campaigning already completed. Diane Abbot, clearly playing her status as a left winger, has used rhetoric and polemic to argue a left wing stance on University admission (guaranteed places for the poor), policing (stop racism), the war in Iraq and Afghanistan (exit timetables) and social housing (we need more). But on substance – foreign policy, the economy, the reform of welfare – she is quiet.

Andy Burnham, a centre-left candidate based in Manchester, is campaigning by criticising the recently defeated Labour Government – of which he was an integral part – and offering a few choice policy positions. One of these is a new National Care Service –aimed at helping those in need stay at home through the provision of home based care. On key issues he too is all talk and no detail – a characteristic of all in this leadership race.

Ed Balls, the former Minister of Education, is outspoken and bold in his use of language, even though he appears to have little to say of substance, other than that he disagrees with the Millibands. He now thinks that the war in Iraq was a mistake and that seeking to halve the deficit in four years (the commitment of the Labour government of which Balls was a senior minister) was a “mission impossible”. He is vague on what he would in fact do on the economy.

Ed and David Milliband, while expressing familial affection, are fighting similar but subtly different campaigns. David, the former Foreign Secretary, is committed to a broad ethical foreign policy and a radical rethink of the social policies of Britain – broadly in line with the ideas behind the Big Society, launched by the Prime Minister in July. He has defended the war in Iraq and supports fiscal responsible economic policies which minimize the impact on the most vulnerable. He is thought by many to be the likely winner.

His younger brother Ed, who was Energy and Climate Change Secretary in the last administration, takes a similar view of the challenges and has subtle differences with David on the response to these challenges. More of a common man than David – who is seen by many to be overly analytical and intellectual – Ed has a more passionate way of presenting ideas than his brother and, as the campaign unfolds, has been moving increasingly to the left. He has spoken of a four or five year plan to remodel the British economy by tackling the gap between rich and poor and creating a broader industrial base – focusing on personal and regional disparities. But he too has been short on detail.

By the time the Labour Party conference ends on 30th September, the party will have a new leader and the infighting will begin. Failed candidates will continue to vie for position and former grandees will look for front bench opposition places. Meanwhile, the coalition Government will continue to rule with authority and expediency and get on with the business of reinventing Briton, whether or not the Labour Party has anything new to say, which looks doubtful.

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