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Labour leadership

Samira Shackle, London
June 15, 2015

The contest over who will lead the UK's Labour Party will be dominated by questions over the best way for the party to win back voter confidence, writes Samira Shackle from London.

Andy Burnham
Image: picture-alliance/empics/L. Cameron

The final candidates running for the Labour leadership are Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, and Jeremy Corbyn. Burnham led the field, with 66 nominations from Labour MPs. Cooper was close behind with 56, and Kendall was backed by 40. Corbyn secured the support of 35 MPs, the minimum threshold for making it into the ballot paper. A long leadership race will now ensue, with the winner announced before the Labour Party conference in September.

The contest began when Ed Miliband resigned in the aftermath of Labour's heavy defeat in May. Labour now has a significantly reduced total of 232 MPs, following heavy losses to the Scottish National Party north of the border and a failure to gain support in southern England. Labour's last five years have been dominated by doubts over Miliband's leadership and whether he lacked the personal qualities required to lead the party to victory.

Woman on podium
The SNP dealt Labour a huge blow at the electionImage: Reuters/C. McNaughton

"In 2010, the debate was more focused on policy differences and moving to the left of New Labour or not, but this time it feels much more like a presidential campaign, about the personality and personal qualities of the leaders," says Andrew Harrop, general secretary of the Fabian Society, a left-wing think tank. "For that reason, many of the people I talk to feel much more undecided in this election than they have in the past."

Policy differences

Yet there are significant policy differences between the candidates. Burnham, the current frontrunner, has been the MP for Leigh since 2001, and has served as health secretary, culture secretary, and chief secretary to the Treasury. He stood for the leadership in 2010. After losing to Miliband he went on to serve as shadow health secretary (the shadow cabinet is made up of senior opposition politicians who "shadow" and scrutinize government policies - the ed.). His critics argue that he will simply continue the status quo; he recently said that the 2015 manifesto was the best he had stood on in four elections. His supporters argue that he will continue the broadly left-wing policies of Miliband, but better packaged and presented. As Miliband did, he has strong support from the trade unions. However, Burnham has gone out of his way to appeal to the center ground, arguing that Labour must support the "aspirations of everyone."

man walking past supporters copyright: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images
Long road to ruin: Labour needs new ideasImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Tallis

Kendall, the first to declare her intention to run, is very much on the right of the party, and is seen as the Blairite contender. She has argued for the reform of public services, advocating a role for private firms within the national health service. Her central message is that a "fundamentally new approach" is needed within Labour. Her critics argue her policies are too close to the Conservatives.

The third contender is Cooper, who has been shadow home secretary for the last four years, and has been in parliament since 1997. An experienced parliamentarian, she has served as work and pensions minister and as chief secretary to the Treasury, and is seen as a strong performer in the House of Commons. However, most analysts agree that thus far her leadership campaign has not articulated a distinct message. Announcing her bid, she said: "Our promise of hope wasn't strong enough to drown out the Tory and UKIP voices of fear. That's what we need to change." She has emphasized her experience and authority, as well as the need to stick to Labour values, and also hopes to capitalize on the feeling within the party that it is time to elect a female leader.

Broader appeal

Corbyn, who made it onto the ballot paper at the last minute, is a veteran MP seen as a standard-bearer for the left-wing of the Labour Party. He has often been at odds with his party, opposing the Iraq war and other foreign interventions, and backing public ownership of the banks. He told his local newspaper, the Islington Gazette, that he was responding to the desire for a "broader" range of candidates.

man at podium
Can Labour reclaim the center ground from the Tories?Image: Reuters/Darren Staples

"The Labour leadership contest is unpredictable, as the party has adopted a new electoral system since 2010," says Duncan O’Leary, research director at Demos, an independent think tank. "No-one knows, for example, how many trade union members will sign up to vote in the election, alongside party members. This makes it hard for the candidates to judge the mood of their electorate, as it is not clear exactly who the electorate will be."

The candidates will now embark on an intensive schedule of debates as MPs and party members decide which direction they want the party to go in. "Labour will urgently need to challenge the myth that its overspending caused the financial crisis," says Ellie O'Hagan of the Class think-tank. "This is a long-running and untrue accusation of the Conservatives and it will need a firm and decisive rebuttal . If this myth is allowed to persist, Labour will not be seen as economically credible without capitulating to Conservative fiscal policy."

Others disagree. "Over the last five years Labour showed too little appetite to tackle the budget deficit and, at times, appeared hostile to the business community," says O’Leary. "Picking the right leader is important, but putting these things right is equally so."

Whoever wins will have a difficult task ahead. "The biggest challenge is to reconnect with different sorts of voters and restore trust and confidence in the Labour Party," says Harrop. "That's particularly difficult because Labour lost support in many different directions. It needs to reconnect with voters in Scotland and in the working class heartland, and into Middle England's market towns. The task it faces in 2020 will be much harder than the challenge in 2015."