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The Labour Leadership Contest Matters for Tories and Neutrals Just as Much as Labour Members

27/07/2015 16:46 BST | Updated 27/07/2016 10:59 BST

Various terms have been used in recent days and weeks to describe the ongoing Labour leadership contest; 'chaos', 'farce', and 'totally out of control' being but three which seem to sum up the mood of many observers both inside and outside the party.

There is no question the process is dragging on for far too long (there is still a good six weeks to go) and has left the Parliamentary party paralysed, unable to form a coherent opposition and unify to adequately scrutinise key Government legislation, most notably the recent Budget.

So much has the internal bickering hampered their Parliamentary activity that last week, the SNP occupied their seats in the Commons claiming it was they who were the only active opposition party in Parliament. They had a point.

Recess has bought some welcome respite for the Parliamentary Labour Party on that front, but the scenes in recent weeks have only served to highlight how important this leadership election for the Labour Party, and for everyone else as well.

Labour currently finds itself where the Tories were in 2001. They have comprehensively lost their second consecutive General Election, and with it a leader who no-one outside of his Westminster office genuinely felt had the 'statesmanlike' qualities to run the country.

The next choice of leader is vital. Get it wrong and like the Tories in 2001, when Iain Duncan-Smith proved to be an even less effective leader than William Hague before him, the party could well be condemned to a generation on the opposition benches.

Get it right, and there is plenty there to hold to Government to account over.

The Tory Party meanwhile are loving watching the chaos unfurl, and are rooting for the far left candidate Jeremy Corbyn to prevail. They figure that he is unelectable and will guarantee them another ten years in office.

But as Conservative MEP Dan Hannan recently highlighted in an article for the ConservativeHome website, having a strong and effective opposition is necessary for a Government to perform to the best of its abilities. Hannan is a divisive figure both within the Conservatives and outside, but he is bang on the money with this point.

When faced with a weak opposition, Government's get complacent. When faced with a divided opposition, Governments get sloppy, knowing their policies will prevail no matter what.

The last Labour Government is a classic case in point. Yes, they achieved some very notable things whilst in office such as giving the Bank of England independence, peace in Northern Ireland, the Minimum Wage, Civil Partnerships and more equal rights for the LGBT community. I could go on.

But faced with little credible opposition for their first two terms in office, they delivered some shocking legislation too. They took us into unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The increased taxes and public spending. They introduced RIPA which allowed every Government agency to snoop on us. And of course they set our economy on course for meltdown in the 2008 economic crash.

There is already plenty of evidence of a similar fate potentially befalling the Cameron administration too, and it is in the interests of everyone that a functioning Labour Party is there to oppose the dodgy policy being put forward.

A week or so ago, the High Court ruled that the Governments Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) which was passed a year ago, was illegal. This judgement followed an unprecedented move from Tory backbencher David Davis MP and Labour Backbencher Tom Watson MP to Judicially Review the legislation which was rushed through both the Lords and Commons in just one day.

But it shouldn't take a legal challenge from two diligent backbenchers to stop the Government railroading through draconian legislation. That is what the opposition party is there to do. They should be using Parliamentary procedures to stop the Government stifling debate, and should be questioning the ill-thought-through arguments put forward in defence of the Act by the Home Secretary.

There will be plenty more Government policy that needs to be held up to the light over the next five years too. Plans to spend billions renewing Trident without any real military justification for doing so; a spending splurge in the NHS; the HS2 scheme is likely to forge forward despite spiralling costs and widespread opposition; the list goes on and on.

Without an effective opposition, we could be pushing through policies that everyone will regret in the years ahead. The SNP has neither the numbers, nor the political experience to fill the void, the Lib Dems are, for now at least, a non-entity, so it has to be Labour.

But is there really any hope that they can pull their socks up and come together to form a functioning political entity again? There is no doubt that this process is causing significant damage to the party. Can any of the four candidates heal the wounds?

There is no doubt that Jeremy Corbyn would oppose the Government vociferously, but Labour lost the last election because of their shift away from the middle ground towards the left, and he will move them significantly further in that direction.

There is also a very real risk of his leadership seeing the party split down ideological lines, and five year of Labour infighting will impede both their scrutiny of the Government, and the task of convincing the country they are fit for office again.

Liz Kendall sits very much more to the centre, but has been cast as both a Tory and a Blairite (both as damning as each other within Labour these days it seems) and threatens to split the Party from the other side of the abyss.

Andy Burnham seems the most likely candidate to take the helm, but he sits as far to the left as Ed Miliband did, and is equally as tarnished by his close ties with the Trade Unions. Despite what he and they may think, Union links are politically toxic at the moment, and such links will cast a shadow over his leadership, as will the skeletons still resting firmly in his cupboard from his time as a Minister, most notably, the Mid-Staffs NHS scandal, which happened on his watch as Health Secretary.

Which leaves Yvette Cooper as the only really credible candidate. Yet bizarrely, having started out as a front-runner, she has drifted into the margins without really differentiating what she stands for. Maybe this is a deliberate strategy, and she will rise above the bickering in the weeks leading up to the election, but she will have to move fast if she is to perform such a phoenix-like revival.

It is Cooper who the Tories will fear and respect the most. She is a former Minister, relatively untarnished by the economic failings of the Gordon Brown years (her relationship with husband Ed Balls not withstanding) and who has shown herself to be effective both in Government and Opposition. She neither hard-left nor Blairite in her policies, has proved herself a good Parliamentarian and a strong media performer, as well as intellectually capable of handling a variety of challenging briefs.

Whoever wins will find themselves with a daunting task, but as things stand is seems to be Cooper who offers hope of a positive outcome, for Labour, for the Tories, and for the country.