We hear a lot about how politics these days is all about personality, presidential contests etc etc. So why is it that the Labour leadership contest, crammed full of candidates, literally jostling for position on a tiny podia somewhere near you, is so lacking in personalities? I say this mindful of the partial exception of Dianne Abbott, whose delivery revolves around a self-righteous celebration of her electoral pulling power in Hackney.
So, for the “real” candidates: four men with barely a personality between them: the likely victor David Miliband comes across as a petulant comprehensive head master in a well healed home county. His brother Ed, slightly less petulant, sparring with his slightly older brother for who can best package their answers to encompass the median party demographic without alienating the narrow socio-economic band who will actually determine whether they ever get to be prime minister. Ed Balls, hideous to look at, wide-faced and slippery, the infamous “emissary from Planet Fuck”, as Mandy alleges he was known in the Blair Camp, oh so superficially left-wing in a field of 40-something blokes way to the right of Ted Heath. Oh, and not forgetting Andy. Nice guy, very nice guy (I mean that, I worked on the same floor as him at the palace of Westminster when he and I were mere MPs’ research assistant). But if Milly Sr is a middling school’s middling head teacher, well, Andy is probably the PE teacher. I am sorry, do I appear a snob? I mean I wanted Alan Johnson on the ticket so we could put him up against Lord Snooty. That doesn’t prove I am not a snob, I guess. However, what I really look down on is average-ness dressed up as significance. This is not confined to the Labour Party of course, but at least the Tories produced a guy with plausibility as a PM. Of course when he beat the seemingly more preferable (marketable?) David Davies (how classless a name is that?), many would have doubted he was made of the right stuff. Maybe one of the Millies will grow into the job. But am I betraying my age (I am 46) when I say that as a Labour supporter who remembers (just about) Michael Foot winning the 1980 leadership election (against Healey and Shore), Tony Benn’s challenge for the deputy leadership in 1981 (against eventual winner Healey and John Silkin), the 1983 face-off involving Kinnock, Hattersley, Shore and Heffer), that the calibre of the candidates, their defined and passionate personalities, their intellect, makes the current boyish posturing look like a minor scrap among soiled ex-secretaries of state for who is the most “deserving” of the job. Of course it’s arguable that 1994 wasn’t much of a contest either, with some plausible leaders whose philosophies were in marked contrast to the Blair-Prescott stitch-up declining to stand and Beckett hardly making an impression. However, at least these were personalities and Beckett did at least seem to represent something different to the modernising juggernaut that had been chomping at the bit under John Smith.
In 2010 I am still hearing about the debate the candidates want to have, and nothing about their ideas, policies, least of all philosophy, unless that is you count a “fairness agenda” that everyone from Cameron to Mr Leftie Balls buys into. British social democracy was at one time passionately and intellectually argued for by party leader Hugh Gaitskell and by Tony Crossland (whose cabinet experience was less than his admirer, David M). After New Labour, social democracy has been reduced to ensuring “opportunity for the many” by reforming welfarism and providing tax breaks for the wealthy. I guess therefore that it’s hardly surprising that these limp wrists can’t get off the starting blocks.