Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 25 May 2007
I have never quite worked out why so many people who are involved in politics think that party leadership contests provide a marvellous opportunity for debate. Every time the top post falls vacant in any of our major political parties — and in Labour’s case when the deputy leader goes — the cry goes up that there must be a contest to ensure a debate on the party’s future. Then there’s either a lot of huffing and puffing about how the absence of a contest means that debate has been stifled, or else there’s a contest, in which all the candidates make a point of welcoming the chance for debate that the contest offers.
What rarely if ever happens, however, is any actual debate. Sure, the candidates produce vague personal manifestos, give interviews to the newspapers and the broadcast media, tour the country delivering anodyne speeches and — these days — make fools of themselves on the internet. Sometimes they even appear on hustings platforms with one another. But I can think of only one leadership or deputy leadership contest in any of the major political parties in the past 20 years in which candidates have engaged in substantive discussion of their party’s overall direction.
That was way back in 1988, when Tony Benn and Eric Heffer challenged Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley for Labour’s leadership and deputy leadership. (John Prescott also stood for deputy, but that’s another story.) Against the shift towards the political centre that Kinnock and Hattersley had started since 1983, Benn and Heffer offered a clear left alternative: renationalisation of everything the Tories had privatised, withdrawal from the European Community, no compromise on unilateral nuclear disarmament, no expulsions of Trotskyists from the Labour Party. Labour in those days had a system for electing its leaders in which unions and constituency parties did not have to ballot their members before casting their votes, so the official result showing Benn taking 11.4 per cent of the vote and Heffer 9.5 per cent needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt. But the scale of the left’s defeat was awesome — so awesome in fact that many on the left wondered afterwards whether it might not have been more sensible not to have mounted a challenge.
Since then, Labour has had two leadership and deputy leadership contests and is now having a leadership non-contest and deputy contest; the Tories have had six leadership contests and one non-contest; and the Lib Dems have had two leadership contests. But not one of them has sparked a serious internal debate about a party’s direction.
Although all but the last two of the Tories’ battles in the past 20 years have in the end been a pro-European versus an anti-European (or at least someone thought by supporters to be anti-European), none has been conducted in explicitly political terms: all have been about the personal qualities of the candidates.
Of course, that’s partly because the Tories always do politics that way — but the phenomenon is just as marked with Labour. There were real enough political differences between John Smith and Bryan Gould in 1992, particularly over Europe, but they spent most of their time during the contest (if indeed it should be described as such) agreeing with one another about how crucial it was to reform Labour’s internal structures. In 1994, Tony Blair was as much of a shoo-in as Smith had been two years earlier, with both John Prescott and Margaret Beckett interested only in which one of them became his deputy.
Maybe it would all have been different this time had John McDonnell made it on to the leadership ballot, but I have my doubts. Nothing he could have done or said would have changed his position as a hopeless outsider, and Gordon Brown would have found it easy to avoid giving hostages to fortune. In any case, McDonnell didn’t make it, so all we have is a deputy leadership contest with six candidates, all of whom know that the media will pounce on any hint of their differing with Brown.
I’m already sick of it, and we’ve still got four more weeks. For what it’s worth, as things stand I’m voting for Hilary Benn because I think he talks sense on foreign policy, but I’m also impressed by the things John Cruddas has been saying about Labour’s need to revitalise its appeal to working-class voters — and I’ve always liked Peter Hain. In fact, I’m not going to despair whoever wins.
What I’m not expecting any of them to do is add much to the discussion about what a Brown government should do by way of policy. Nor will any of them have any say in who gets which jobs in that government. The truth is that all the cards are now in Brown’s hands, and nothing forseeable of great importance will happen until he chooses to play them.