Monday, January 08, 2007

Podcast: Who will be Labour's No 2?

Script for my Week in Politics podcast, Episode 51, which went live today.


Last week, in my podcast previewing the political year 2007, I focused on what everyone expects to be the big story of the next 12 months – the election of a new Labour leader and Prime Minister.

It goes without saying that it is an event of huge political significance. But the problem with it from a pundit’s point of view is that is the outcome is widely seen as cut and dried.

Over the past few days, Home Secretary John Reid has done his best to suggest that
Gordon Brown may not, after all, have a coronation, with a speech warning him not to veer from the true path of New Labour.

From Labour’s perspective, I happen to think it was spectacularly unhelpful, but if there is to be a contest, then Dr Reid remains overwhelmingly the most likely challenger.

But so much for the main attraction – what of the main support act, namely the contest to become Labour’s deputy leader?

With the leadership battle seen as increasingly sewn-up, much New Year media speculation has centred on the question not of who will succeed Tony Blair, but who will replace John Prescott.

There are six declared candidates - International Development Secretary Hilary Benn, Party Chairman Hazel Blears, backbencher Jon Cruddas, Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, Solicitor-General Harriet Harman, and Education Secretary Alan Johnson.

Two of them are currently a little way ahead of the rest of the field – but it’s a wide open race and any of the other four could yet come out on top.

The two early frontrunners are Mr Benn, who has emerged as the leading candidate from inside the current Cabinet, and Mr Cruddas, who is fighting a classic “outsider’s” campaign from the backbenches.

Mr Benn’s attraction is that, as a member of the Blair Cabinet but with slightly left-of-centre views in Labour terms, he is seen as a unifier with broad cross-party appeal.

Some of this is doubtless sentimental, in that Hilary is the son of the left’s great hero Tony Benn, who so narrowly failed to wrest the deputy leadership of the party from Denis Healey in 1981.

But Mr Cruddas is also winning significant support, not just from the left from but from Labour activists who like his emphasis on making the party more accountable to its members.

So can any of the others catch-up? Well, there is little doubt that the candidate whose vote is being squeezed hardest by the Benn-Cruddas ascendancy is Mr Hain.
He is himself a man of the left, having initially gained prominence as an anti-apartheid campaigner, and imagined he would get much of the support that has instead gone to Mr Cruddas.

Mr Hain’s problem is that he is seen to have made too many compromises. He was, for a time, very close to the late Robin Cook, but failed to resign with him over the Iraq War in 2003.

Had he done so, it is at least arguable that he would now be in with a good shout of becoming not merely deputy leader, but Prime Minister.

Of the two female candidates, Ms Blears has recently run into trouble on two counts. Firstly, as Party Chair, she is in charge of party organisation and thus technically responsible for staging the contest, a fairly obvious conflict of interest.

Secondly, her protest against health cuts in her constituency, while brave, has brought accusations of hypocrisy and claims she should resign her Cabinet post.

Ms Harman is likely to have broader support in the party, but the problem with her leadership pitch is that it appears solely to be based on the fact that she is a woman.

She is also handicapped by her poor performance in Cabinet as Social Security Secretary between 1997 and 1998 before Mr Blair had to sack her on the grounds of general uselessness.

That, at least, is not an accusation that could be levelled at Mr Johnson, who has proved himself one of the more energetic and articulate spokesmen for the New Labour cause since joining the Cabinet two years ago.

But his political star appears to be on the wane, after his failure to emerge as a convincing challenger to Mr Brown for the top job last autumn.

Rightly or wrongly, Mr Johnson is still viewed by many as more of a would-be leader than a natural deputy.

As Lord Hattersley pointed out yesterday, his election would lead to moreorless constant media speculation that he was out to undermine Mr Brown in the hope of succeeding to the top job.

Other names could yet enter the fray. The backbencher Jeremy Corbyn, for instance, is rumoured to be launching a bid from the far left.

But Commons leader Jack Straw has probably left it too late. As I wrote last week, he is really the fallback unity candidate for leader should anything amiss happen to Gordon.

I sense the feeling in the party is that the deputy leadership needs to go to a fresh face, to balance out the fact that the leadership is likely to go to a very well-known one.

That need not exclude the likes of Mr Johnson or Mr Benn, but it does rule out figures like Mr Straw and Margaret Becket who have been pivotal Cabinet figures throughout the Blair years.

If I had to put my money on anyone at the moment, it would be Mr Cruddas, on the grounds that the unions and party members will see it as a chance for them to have a bigger say in the way the party is run.

But the really intriguing thing about that is that the anti-establishment Mr Cruddas
could actually be the candidate Mr Brown secretly wants as his deputy.

It was reported last year that the Chancellor intends to do away with the somewhat discredited post of Deputy Prime Minister, and Mr Cruddas is standing on precisely this platform.

Looked at in those terms, a Brown-Cruddas leadership is beginning to seem like it could be Labour’s new dream ticket.

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