Unfortunately, so far at least, the Labour leadership contest falls short of this ideal-typical notion of what a contest should look like. Having scanned numerous discussions in the last week amid the compulsory Ed Miliband obituaries; professional commentators and the hoi polloi of social media are fixating on personality over politics. That's probably because there isn't that much separating the five (I'm including my erstwhile boss here, even though he's yet to declare). It's frustrating. The left have piled in behind Andy Burnham, it looks like the Progress-y types are rallying around Liz Kendall, leaving Yvette Cooper to mop up whoever's left. Poor old Tristram and Mary Creagh, they will be hard pressed to pick up the required 35 MP votes to be put before the membership. And no one, not one of the candidates so far have made much of a policy announcement. Aspiration is the buzz word of choice, and all are vying for its mantle.
Of course, personalities are important in politics. Having a figure that can embody your party and movement, as well acting as a canvas for uncommitted/swing voters to project whatever they want onto her/him is crucial. Though, it should be noted that leader effects can be overstated. Despite the chatter about how better David Miliband would have done, serious research into this area finds that leaders have marginal effects on vote tallies (though, in the case of this election, that might have made the difference between a hung Parliament and a majority).
Let us dwell then on the issue of personality and the scraps of policy comments made by the frontrunners so far. Again, condensing the chatter out there in political comment land, a number of views are coalescing. Andy Burnham is too northern and too working class to appeal to the 901 middle England voters who gifted the Tories their majority. He has privately-held conservative views consistent with his Catholicism (you can guess what they are, nudge nudge), and, well, Mid-Staffs Hospital. Yvette Cooper is a time server who, for obvious reasons, is too close to Ed Balls and carriages baggage from the Blair/Brown ancien regime. She voted for the Iraq War and "opposed" Theresa May by, at times, appearing even more authoritarian. Mary Creagh is this contest's Andy Burnham (circa 2010) who stands no chance, but is raising her profile. Similarly with Tristram Hunt. His urbane charm would go down very well in the South East but ooop north, he is the stuff of which UKIP votes are made. And then there is Liz Kendall. Select Tories have helpfully let it be known she is the one that scares them the most, and while very personable with a sharp tactical brain, she is as Westminster wonky as the rest and has skewed priorities. Asked at the leadership hustings at the weekend's Progress conference, she outlined one of her priorities to be "public sector reform". There couldn't be a clearer signal of her heir-to-Blair creds. The fear is the hollowing out that took place under Blair and Brown, and has since been partially filled back in, could see the excavation start all over again.
In fact, that Progress hustings should be required viewing for all sections of the labour movement. Just don't expect too much. While all are aware of what Tristram calls the triple-bind - coming back in Scotland, seeing off UKIP and other threats in heartland seats, and scooping up Tory-held constituencies by the bucketload, there is scant - if any - awareness of the deep seated problems the party has got. Take this of Barry Sheerman speaking "unofficially" for Camp Kendall. He says:
The 2010 result, and the way it happened, means we need a different relationship with the trade unions. We don’t want to break it, but we have to be realistic about the role of unions in society. They are smaller than they ever were and they are increasingly rare in the private sector. They do not provide troops on the ground or at general committees. The number of trades unionists that are active in the Labour party on the ground is tiny.Charming. I don't know what it's like for Barry in his Huddersfield patch, but that's certainly not the case with the half dozen or so CLPs of my acquaintance. Perhaps a few words with his West Midlands comrades might be in order. Nevertheless, to choose to mouth off on this issue now when candidates should be courting votes suggests that Liz thinks the future is putting even more distance between real working people, at the very moment politicians treat working people in the abstract as a fetish. Thanks, but no thanks. You can't solve Labour's problems by making them worse.
And then there were four. A litmus test for any political leader is economic literacy and understanding the difference between political economy and economics driven by politics. And, unfortunately, this is where two more of the contenders fall short. On Thursday's Question Time, responding to an audience member asking about spending under the last Labour government prior to the crash, Tristram conceded the Tory view that it had spend too much. It got a round of applause, but it was wrong. Likewise, and worryingly for a leadership candidate, at Progress Mary said it hadn't and yet a day later, faced with Brillo on The Sunday Politics, she said that it had - but won't be apologising for extra nurses, hospitals and what have you. It's been a long time since I've seen such gratuitous - and fatuous - cake eating. So for not standing up for the truth, however inconvenient it might be and, in Mary's case, for basic dishonesty, it's a no.
Two left. Notably, only Yvette defended Labour's spending. Andy clapped, the others sat on their hands. Here then are the two who have an inkling about what's going on. Yvette, as a trained economist, presumably believes the Post-Keynesian economics that underpinned her husband's challenge in 2010 and, one hopes, will see them get an airing this time round. However, the big problems with Ed Balls was his intellectual pitch against austerity during the 2010 contest, and then abandoning it entirely once he assumed the shadow chancellor brief. He knew cuts were unnecessary and damaging, but went along with it anyway because - again - Westminster convenience. Will she show greater political courage?
And there is Andy. He has the momentum, but does he have the policies? Interestingly, at Progress he made an audacious pitch for aspiration by hinting (only hinting, mind) that he's set to lump tuition fees in with so-called 'taxes on aspiration' - one barrier to aspiration most Blairite ultras have shown persistent indifference to. But much of what he is standing for remains in the murk. A development of a national care service and its integration into the NHS, certainly, but what about the economy, housing, and the rest? And what's his diagnosis of the problems facing the Labour party, the movement he represents, and how does he propose we address them?
Of the field, Andy and Yvette seem to be the most plugged in but there's little that is inspirational. Unless things liven up, unless the serious questions are raised, debated, and faced up to, the road beyond the leadership election is going to be rocky.