Saturday, May 19, 2007

We are the masters now

Isn't amazing just how much they all love us now they want our votes?

I'm drowning in the sea of love from all the deputy leader candidates - and I've even had a personalised letter from the big man himself. It is almost as if they truly care.

There was some talk earlier in the week (Jonathan Freedland wrote about it in his Guardian column) that Gordon should loan some of his supporters to the McDonnell campaign so as to ensure that there was an electoral contest. While this would have provided a thin veneer of democracy to the almost inevitable Brown victory, the fact that the system would have to be subverted to ensure that a candidate went onto the ballot paper seems dodgy to me. Add in the fact that we would then have had weeks of in-fighting between the candidates and I believe that it would have been more divisive and thus more damaging to our electoral prospects than the eventual outcome. Yes, the Tories will portray it as a coronation and complain about Gordon not even being elected to the leadership by the members, but if the PM can't rely on the support of the parliamentary party, then he doesn't deserve the support of the members. That support was demonstrated in overwhelming numbers and entirely in line with the rules of the contest. This way, the media focus will be entirely on Gordon and he'll be able to talk more freely about the differences a Brownite government will bring, without the distraction of having to slug it out with an opponent.

The really interesting side to the contest is the fight over the deputy leadership - the Labour Party's very own pitcher of warm spittle. All the candidates have their qualities and I wouldn't be unhappy with any of them sitting next to Gordon. Clearly, those of you with eyes to see will spot from the sidebar that I'm backing the Jon Cruddas campaign and this is simply because I believe that the first duty of the party must be to reconnect with the membership (I wish Jon more success than I brought to my last leadership candidate). The state of much of the grassroots - even in normally 'safe' Labour areas - is increasingly parlous and we need somebody at a high level capable of re-energising our party members. Membership has to mean something and Jon has put it front and centre on his campaign. While he lacks experience as a minister, he's worked for the Labour Party for a number of years and is garnering an interesting level of support. Our very own Tom Watson is with him, as is Bob Piper, Diane Abbott, Frank Dobson and Glenda Jackson. He can also rely on the backing of two Birmingham MPs - Lynne Jones and Khalid Mahmood. Jon has also signed up the heavyweight backing from Unite - the combination of Amicus and the TGWU and can now add Ken Livingstone to his list. If he doesn't win, he should immediately be appointed as party chair and told to get on with the job.

Peter Hain has an excellent pedigree, combined with experience of office at high levels. Those of a certain age will recall him as a prime mover in the fight against apartheid and a founder of the Anti Nazi league (as well as a former Liberal - but everyone has skeletons in their closet). He's collected a range of supporters, including five junior ministers and Ann Clwyd, Shaun Woodward and the eternal rebel Bob Marshall-Andrews, as well as the regular contributor to PoliticalBetting, Nick Palmer. I think he's proven himself pretty competent all round - but is he perhaps a little too well-fed and perma-tanned these days?

Hazel Blears, my little chipmunk, is one of the solidly Blairite candidates on the list - indeed, she was one of the original Blair babes back in 1997. The motorcycling Hazel can count on Alan Milburn, John Reid, Eric Joyce, Tessa Jowell, Ruth Kelly, Hilary Armstrong, John Hutton, Hall Green's Steve McCabe and former Birmingham Labour councillor and now MP for Stoke South Rob Flello. She's certainly able to muster a roll-call of the great and the good - five ministers of Cabinet rank, no less - to support her campaign and it would be a positive move to have a woman near the top. However, do we want to keep that connection with the Blair years? A stronger candidate than many think, but may not play well with the unions.

The man with the strong union background is Alan Johnson, renowned for having worked his way up from the streets as a postman to run the country's education system. While that's a traditional route for Labour politicians, he's perhaps too close to the Blair years and may not find the unions that supportive to one of their own. He and Hazel should share support as people who put her as first choice will probably back Alan as second and vice versa. He certainly can't be ruled out of the running - although I'm not sure that winning the backing of Alistair Campbell will do him any good. He has probably the best credentials of any when it comes to speaking to the working-class Tory vote in the south and keeping them inside the Blairite big tent. His supporters include Frank Field, Ed Balls (a Brownite in the camp), Adam Ingram, Des Browne, John Prescott, Dawn Primarolo, Hodge Hill's Liam Byrne and Erdington's Sion Simon.

Harriet Harman is a renowned campaigner on women and family issues and is another who could play well with the southern voters. With Margaret Hodge, Patricia Hewitt and David Milliband in her corner, she can also rely on some strong Brownite support from Nick Brown, Yvette Cooper (Mrs Balls) and Alistair Darling as well as the traditional lefty Joan Ruddock and the backing of both the Kinnocks. Locally, Edgbaston's Gisela Stuart is behind Harriet, as are Neena Gill and Michael Cashman, our MEPs.

Finally, we have the last entrant to the race, Hilary Benn, following in his father's footsteps as he (probably) fails to win the job. He followed a tough act at DFID and has done a good job in a difficult environment. He'll enjoy good name recognition, but I think he'll be an early faller. Like others, he has a mix of supporters from across the spectrum - probably the only time you'll David Lammy and Ian McCartney rubbing shoulders with Jeremy Corbyn, Dennis Skinner and Mark Fisher. I can't help but wonder if Hilary's last minute dash over the line for the nomination wasn't helped by a few phone calls from his old man to some of the usual suspects to help out for old times' sake. A decent minister and one deserving of a place at the Brown Cabinet table, but not Deputy Leader material I would say.

Those are the runners and riders. Sunday brings us the West Midlands hustings in Coventry. I'll be there with my notebook and I'll let you know what I see and hear.

[EDIT - Don't know why the links/comments bit hasn't appeared. No reason and it is now corrected.]

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