Labour’s Leadership Candidates Must Defy the Pull of Nostalgia

It is generally accepted if not scientifically proven that politicians are more susceptible to nostalgia than any other profession. 

Each generation is never deemed equal to those that have passed before. The leading figures of Labour in the 1990s were always judged against the era of Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Tony Crosland and Harold Wilson, which in turn, was inferior to post-War Cabinet of Clement Attlee, Nye Bevan, Ernest Bevin and Stafford Cripps.

This veneration of generations past is not unique to one party. The Tories still mourn the age of Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Lawson, Geoffrey Howe and Kenneth Baker, who were sometimes unfavourably compared to Harold Macmillan, Iain Macleod, Rab Bulter and Reggie Maudling.

Fading memories and sentimentality bequeath greatness while conveniently forgetting the also-rans, the failures and the insignificant. Who now remembers John Moore, the rising star of the Thatcher government who soared to anonymity?

This forgetfulness is matched only by an inability to appreciate the calibre of the present generation, which inevitably lacks the intellectual firepower of their forefathers while being too heavily drawn from the world of advisers or too reliant on nepotism. 

The most common conversation among Labour MPs is that none of the runners is judged to have star quality and clout 

Those who decry hereditary politicians conveniently forget that Churchill, Jenkins (Roy and Bernard) and, of course, the Benns were all sons of MPs. Bemoaning political nepotism is the Pitts.

And so it has inevitably come to pass that the present cadre of Labour MPs is deemed inferior to the Blair/Brown generation of Robin Cook, Jack Straw, David Blunkett and Alan Johnson. 

The most common conversation among Labour MPs at the moment, even with those who have declared for a leadership candidate, is that none of the runners is judged to have the star quality and clout of the previous leaders.

Few deny that Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall or Mary Creagh are personable candidates with their hearts in the right place. Not one of them can be accused of being a venal, underhand operator with a reputation for Machiavellian ruthlessness but, for some reason, they struggle to shake off an aura of disappointment.

Journalists in Westminster, of which I am one, pride themselves on the ability to spot the potential stars of each new Parliament. Most of us quickly sought a meeting with Sajid Javid, Dan Jarvis, Kendall, Chuka Umunna and Amber Rudd after the 2010 general election (though Nicky Morgan slipped threw the net).

The same applied when Burnham and Cooper first emerged in the late 1990s. Which is one of the reasons they are now treated with fatigue rather than enthusiasm by a media that thrives on novelty.

We should also acknowledge that some do not become great until greatness is thrust upon them. There was a revealing interview with Tristram Hunt by the Sunday Times journalist Bryan Appelyard earlier this year. The final paragraphs are worth repeating in full: “In the early 1990s I talked to an upcoming young Labour shadow cabinet member in a similarly tiny office.

The task for those running for the Labour leadership is to defy the pull of nostalgia

“He too was relaxed, chummy; he listened carefully and was happy to involve me in his uncertainties. He too was being tipped as a potential leader.

“I came out thinking it was highly unlikely, he was just too casual, too ordinary. His name was Tony Blair.”

This is not an endorsement of Hunt, who has withdrawn from the race anyway, but a reminder that Tony Blair’s reputation as the most gifted politician of his generation was not confirmed until after his first government.

The task for those running for the Labour leadership is to defy the pull of nostalgia by exceeding their expectations. Andy Burnham has to convince those on the right he has not completely deserted his Blairite reformist roots while assuring those on the left his political journey was genuine.

Yvette Cooper has to show she is not a Brownite continuity candidate and is willing to embrace fresh thinking on the economy and public services, while Liz Kendall has to overcome perceptions she does not have the weight and experience to lead a party.

Apologists for Ed Miliband note he prevented Labour from repeating its habit of descending into post election defeat factionalism. Another achievement was to persuade his colleagues to fight on an agenda that, with undignified haste, they have scrambled to disown.

The next leader is unlikely ever again to have that luxury. Sentimentality has beaten ambition in Labour for too long, allowing first Brown and then Miliband to lead the party to inevitable defeats.

Whoever wins the leadership will have the opportunity to shape a generation that could one day be seen as another pantheon of giants. If there is any indication they are set to fail then they could meet a quick and ruthless end - proving that those who mourn the previous generation may, for once, have been right.

Jason Beattie is the Political Editor of the Daily Mirror

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About the author

Jason Beattie is the political editor of the Daily Mirror. He has worked in Westminster for 15 years including spells on the Birmingham Post, Scotsman and the London Evening Standard. A hispanophile, he has also written for El Mundo and has a deep interest in Spanish and Catalan history, culture and food.

Follow Jason on Twitter.

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