The lengthy contest for the Labour leadership rumbles ever onwards, but the end is now in sight. Ten weeks after it started, with over 40 hustings meetings along the way, the votes are now being sent in. The winner will be announced at the start of Labour’s Annual Conference on 25 September.
The five candidates are: former Foreign Secretary David Miliband, his younger brother and former Energy Secretary Ed Miliband, the former Schools Secretary Ed Balls, the former Health Secretary Andy Burnham and backbencher Diane Abbott, the UK’s first female black MP.
Miliband major has been the favourite since the beginning of the process, but over the last few weeks the word has been that Miliband minor is narrowing the gap. And, as the second preferences of votes for the other three candidates will in all likelihood decide the final result, it has even been suggested that Ed might upset the odds and beat big brother David in the second round of voting.
Last night a special Question Time on BBC1 examined the policies of the candidates seeking to replace Gordon Brown. In front of an audience of 50% Labour Party members and 50% members of other parties, the hopefuls took their final opportunity to appeal for support.
A number of themes emerged from the questioning. Dealing with the mistakes of the past, the roles of Blair and Brown in the election defeat and how to win next time around were on the candidates’ minds.
David Miliband looked ahead to the next election, rather than back to the defeat in the last one, stressing that the needs of the country must come first. He also pointed out that he could unite the party, having support from Dennis Skinner to Alastair Darling, and is best placed to defeat the present government. His call for the banks to pay more in tax was well received too.
He clearly wants to be seen as a conciliator, and recognises that division is always disastrous come election time. Perhaps he is the Blairite candidate, but his talk of moving the centre position in politics to become a progressive one was a strong message. And his experience of foreign policy came across strongly in the discussions.
Ed Miliband wants change, and feels that the Labour Party has to win back the trust of working people by campaigning for a living wage and against government cuts. He also acknowledged that the Labour government had erred in being too slow to deal with the banking crisis, and stressed the need for British foreign policy to be more independent from the USA.
The younger Miliband may be to the left of his brother, but is clearly not a left winger by any means. His appeal is broad and he will have done his prospects no harm with a strong performance.
Ed Balls meanwhile was keen to remind the audience that Labour had much to be proud of, such as the minimum wage and health service investment, but had lost its way by trying to appeal to the middle classes and therefore losing its core vote. He wants a forward looking party that sells itself, rather than one that becomes introspective and condemns itself to opposition.
Balls is known to be close to Gordon Brown, but he is not a no change candidate. He is an economic heavyweight and believes that his approach to tacking the deficit could reduce the pain of immediate cuts.
Andy Burnham sees Labour as having lost its message by appealing too much to the better off and forgetting the poorer in society. He argued for honesty, remarking that jobs would have been lost under Labour, which was not popular with some of the audience, but stressed that a credible alternative must be developed.
Burnham also stated that the coalition government does not have a mandate for the cuts it is introducing, as Lib Dem supporters did not vote for them. He proposes a politically led campaign supported by unions and community groups to defeat the cuts. And he also wants tax cuts to play a larger part in tackling the deficit.
Diane Abbot spoke passionately of the disillusionment with Labour that had been created by its leadership, mentioning the Iraq War as a key reason. Interestingly, she defined New Labour as a brand rather than an ideology, and was clearly happy to lose the label if possible.
Abbot knows she has no chance of winning, but used her position as candidate effectively to advance a left agenda. As well as Iraq, she praised the role of trades unions in the labour movement and saw them having a key role in the campaign to come against government cuts. And Abbot has also called for higher taxes and the cancellation of Trident.
While the debate was interesting for the keen political observers amongst us, there was no clear winner. All five candidates were at pains to stress the need for party unity while arguing that they were the ideal person to achieve this. And there were no brotherly spats between the Milibands, much as David Dimbelby would have liked to engineer one.
Selecting a new leader is a big decision for any political party. And for a Labour Party that has just seen its long period in government end, it is especially crucial this time around. While Harriet Harman has performed well in the interim, the party needs a permanent leader with the authority to make changes and to take a positive campaign to the country.
Whichever member of the Miliband family becomes Labour leader next weekend, he will have a massive job in front of him. After three months of debating and vying for support he will first have to unite his core team into a Shadow Cabinet to take on the government.
And then the Labour Party must build towards the next General Election under its new leader.