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Hard to know where to begin in search for a Labour leader

By Matthew Norman

Published 12/05/2015

Exiled prince: David Miliband
Exiled prince: David Miliband

As the field for the Labour leadership stakes languidly trots towards the starting stalls, the answer to at least one of the anguishing questions raised on May 7 becomes apparent. Anyone wondering whether this general election was more or less catastrophic for Labour than that of 1992 need wonder no more.

This one is so much worse that it's hard to know where to begin. So let's follow Julie Andrews's advice in Do-Re-Mi and start at the very beginning by observing that, in 1992, there was more than a natural successor to Neil Kinnock. In the portly, Sergeant Bilko-esque form of John Smith, there was an inevitable successor.

As the latest battle for what might charitably be called Labour's soul commences, things are different. All the candidates are either established second-raters, or unknown quantities.

Whichever poor sod ends up winning will find himself, or herself, grappling with questions to which there are no obvious answers - and possibly no answers at all.

One oasis of certainty is this. The leadership campaign will divisively pit the neo-Blairite centre-Right, represented by Chuka Umunna, against the post-Brownite statist centre-Left, exemplified by second favourite Andy Burnham.

As an Anfield-born, Everton-besotted Scouser, Burnham will present himself as the champion of the traditional Labour industrial (or post-industrial) northern working class.

Umunna is a pretty boy. Younger and less tainted than Burnham, having never served in the Cabinet, his Blairite orthodoxies might be enough in a one person-one vote leadership election stripped of trade union influence.

But whoever it was at his law firm - and the search goes on - who hacked his Wikipedia entry to describe him as potentially "the British Obama" was fanciful.

I'm no great judge of male beauty, but Tristram Hunt is probably the prettiest of them all. He is also more articulate and thoughtful than his rivals, but as the privately educated, academic historian son of a peer, he gives off the stale whiff of a 1950s Hampstead Garden Suburb intellectual from Labour's Gaitskellite right, and that feels outmoded today.

Yvette Cooper, although an absolute brick, now belongs unmistakably to a past from which Labour will feel a crushing urge to escape. Liz Kendall is promising, but unseasoned.

Which brings us, briefly, to David Miliband, whose typically opaque tweeting has been interpreted as hinting at a return for the prince across the water. Is this the moment for Bonnie Prince Bananaman, who has never uttered an oracular sub-Blairite sentence that didn't want sending to Bletchley Park?

Lastly, to the one fancied runner with no form at all. Desperate times demand desperate measures, but do these ones seriously call for Desperate Dan? Granite-faced Dan Jarvis was third favourite with some bookies, primarily because he had that "back story" as the former soldier who lost his wife and the mother of his small children to cancer and had the strength of character to recover.

There is one titanic talent in British politics today and traumatised Labour voters may wish to join me in daydreaming about a reverse-takeover by the SNP that would see Nicola Sturgeon succeed Miliband.

It's utter nonsense to imagine her succeeding in a naturally conservative country, of course, without the turbo propellers of the populist movement that powered her insurgency.

But it tells a story about the mammoth scale of Labour's difficulties and the inadequacy of the candidates to resolve them that you prefer to seek refuge in outlandish fantasy politics than linger for long on their claims.

Belfast Telegraph

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