Everything you need to know about the Labour leadership contenders

Burnham and Cooper are in the final four. PA/Laura Lean

A group of four candidates has emerged with enough votes to stand in the contest to find the next leader of the Labour Party. North London MP Jeremy Corbyn scraped together the required backing at the eleventh hour to secure a place in the line up, alongside Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall.

This will be a long campaign, since the winner will not be announced until September, but we can already make a few educated guesses about what the hopefuls will stand for and what their chances are of making it to the top.

Andy Burnham: the frontrunner

The early frontrunner is Andy Burnham. He has been in parliament since 2001 and has worked as health secretary; culture, media and sport secretary; and chief secretary to the treasury. Since the 2010 election, he has been shadow secretary for both health and education. He is the only candidate who stood in Labour’s last leadership race.

An early buzzword in this leadership race has been “aspiration”, and it’s worth noting that Burnham was talking about “aspirational socialism” back in 2010. He accepts that Labour has lost its “emotional connection” with millions of people, but believes that the 2015 manifesto was the “best one” he has supported in four general elections. Not a Corbyn-like socialist, Burnham should appeal to Labour’s moderate left.

Yvette Cooper: the centrist

Yvette Cooper was elected in 1997. She has been health minister; chief secretary to the treasury; work and pensions secretary; and shadow home secretary. She has positioned herself in the centre, saying that “We need a Labour party that moves beyond the old labels of left and right”.

Cooper has has made an early play for the business vote by calling for a “fresh start” to undo the “anti-business” image the party developed under Ed Miliband. Cooper’s focus on the need for a secure and affordable home for everyone highlights wider problems such as insecurity and instability. Her commitment to end child poverty is also an important part of this push for widening security and should convince some to lend her their support.

Jeremy Corbyn: the wild card

The left’s candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, stands out as the only one to reject austerity. An MP since 1983, he is a long-standing campaigner against war and for workers’ rights.

Corbyn: a late entry from the left. Garry Knight, CC BY

Some may see him as too Old Labour, but his views on certain economic issues chime with mainstream opinion, such as the feeling that too many firms “are able to avoid paying their fair share of tax in the UK”. Arguing that more government cuts will lead to inequality and poverty, his alternative economic strategy will be based on protecting the welfare state and closing the poverty gap.

Liz Kendall: the reformer

Liz Kendall, who only arrived in parliament in 2010, is seen as the “change” candidate. Kendall has support from New Labour quarters, and the modernisation tag associated with Tony Blair has been attached to her.

The shadow social care minister supports tuition fees, free schools and devolving more power from Westminster. She accepts George Osborne’s budget surplus idea and has adopted a clear line on benefit cuts, supporting the Tories’ proposed cap of £23,000 per family.

Like Cooper, Kendall is “pro-business”, placing great emphasis on wealth creation as well as wealth redistribution. Stressing this could broaden Labour’s appeal at a time when small business owners and the self-employed feel that Labour doesn’t care about them.

The big issues

The economy has been central to the debates building up to this final candidate list, with austerity, benefits, business relations and wealth creation all key themes. Unless Corbyn wins, we can assume that Labour won’t challenge the Tory narrative over the deficit. It will support austerity and will focus on capturing the political centre ground, though what this means will need to be considered carefully.

Other concerns such as insecurity and instability have been less talked about. Cooper’s point about housing shows an understanding of the need for security, but low wages and unstable working hours have been less prominent recently. Corbyn’s presence though, should make this a central issue again. But if, in its drive to be pro-business, Labour no longer prioritises these issues, it could encourage the feeling that it doesn’t care about its traditional supporters.

There is also the demand for a Blair-like modernisation, but in this debate it is important to remember that New Labour was a product of its time – and that time was 20 years ago.

Who will win?

Yvette Cooper’s campaign has so far lacked a central narrative, despite her focus on principled issues such as housing and child poverty. This was a criticism of Miliband’s election campaign that had good individual policies but no overarching vision to piece them together.

Jeremy Corbyn is the only one offering a significantly alternative vision, but many will see him as too left-wing to win a general election. If he wins the leadership contest, he will have to argue against austerity at a time when it is generally believed that there is no money.

The call for a Blair-like modernisation may yet favour Kendall, who can claim to represent a fresh start more than the other long-standing MPs. However, Kendall’s Labour could be seen as “Tory-lite” by some. With the SNP winning huge support in the 2015 election off the back of an anti-austerity message, her approach could end up losing as many supporters as it gains.

Burnham is likely to come out on top as he is currently the best fit for Labour. He is still left enough for those who want Labour to be the left’s alternative. But he is also addressing the demand to modernise by recognising that changes in welfare and friendlier relations with business are necessary to appeal to some non-Labour voters.

Overall though, the main choice is between a new, moderate Old Labour, and a new New Labour.

Expert Database

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 54,600 academics and researchers from 2,118 institutions.

Register now