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05/06/2015 06:23 BST | Updated 04/06/2016 06:59 BST

Labour's Leadership Contest and the Politics of Limbo

Westminster Hall debate Organophosphate sheepdip poisoning - Jessica Morden

The Labour Party leadership contest trundles on. Liz Kendall hit upon a Eureka-like revelation when she divined the need for 'a fundamentally new approach'. Mary Creagh offered herself up as a 'leader who will bring people together' - which is good, for loneliness is rarely kind. Also the word 'aspiration' has been floated around a lot. Andy Burnham says that Labour must support the 'aspirations of everyone', Mary Creagh would love 'a country where aspiration and compassion go hand in hand', and Liz Kendall wants to show people that 'we understand their aspirations'.

'Hope' was another heavy favourite - with Cooper urging a stronger 'promise of hope', Creagh clamouring for a party which will 'offer hope', and Kendall averring that the Labour Party can only win when 'we offer hope and opportunity'. Other little gobbets of sloganeering involved people and party being 'forward-looking', standing 'united', remaining 'proud', keeping 'optimistic' and striving for the 'creative'.

To raise these empty soundbites even to the level of platitude would be to grant them a substantiality which is quite undeserved. And as they reel out these mantras, it is hard not to scrutinize with a sense of fascinated wonder the sheer bright-eyed fervour of the politicians who deliver them. To query who or what these bereft and mechanical slogans are designed to combat? Is there somewhere out there, for instance a party which is pushing its political programme on a promise of hopeless, backward-looking, craven and pessimistic disunity? (In the current context such a prospect might seem perversely tempting.)

But the deficit, dull and defunct nature of words which have long since parted with meaning is perhaps symptomatic of a deeper malaise. For a while now the Labour Party has been living in a kind of limbo. From 2010 onward, it was given a precious opportunity - the chance to break away from the Blairite years, and remould itself as a coherent and visible alternative, one shaped in the shadow of the economic crisis and as an opposition to the remorseless grind of the austerity realpolitik. To be fair, there was the odd, vague gesture made in this direction. A tax was suggested for mansions and Ed Miliband put forward proposals to freeze energy prices for a period of 20 months.

In the larger scheme of things, however, such proposals were surprisingly timorous. The mansion tax would have seen a sum of around £11 000 on average falling on homes with a value of at least 2 million, a paltry proportion then. And the freezing of the fuel prices would only have put a weak and temporary stopper on an already extortionate and profit-inflamed industry. And yet, these moves were enough to elicit a barrage of fury from the right wing press - leading to the absurd-comic spectacle of the rather fumbling Labour leader being described in quasi-apocalyptic terms - 'Red Ed' shrieked the Daily Mail, a 'Marxiod creep' yowled Richard Littlejohn, while The Economist shuddered its horror at the Labour leader's 'radical lurch to the left'.

Perhaps it was because of the flammability of the establishment press, but in their desperation to prove the innocuousness of their political programme to the powers-that-be, the Labour party leadership eventually ended up swapping a faint shade of red for a far more pronounced streak of yellow. As the economic crisis deepened, a crisis precipitated by high finance, and one which had seen the banking system bailed out to the tune of £1.3 trillion - the political elites more and more decried the most vulnerable in society as its root source: immigrants, benefit claimants, single mothers were all conjured up for routine demonization.

At various points Labour could have enunciated the facts, soberly and conscientiously. They could have pointed out, for example, that immigrants from the countries which joined the EU in 2004 - contributed £4.96 billion more in taxes than they took out in public services in the period up to 2011. But they didn't choose to do so. Instead Labour's movers and shakers hit upon a far more adroit and punchy concept - they issued a mug which proclaimed 'Controls on Immigrants - I'm voting Labour'. (On the plus side, however, every crank and immigration obsessive nationwide now has something from which to sup.)

Labour might also have drawn attention to the fact that the majority of welfare spending goes to those who are not of a working age, i.e. pensioners and children - but instead the Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions chose to fortify the fantastical and spiteful narrative of 'scroungers' and 'parasites' when she proclaimed with gusto that Labour is not the party to 'represent those out of work'. But what was most required from Labour, at least by its traditional social basis in the working classes and poorer elements, was to repel the austerity narrative and offer up some kind of economic alternative - much as the SNP had fought to do in Scotland. In the event, however, the Labour leadership signed up to the Tory austerity programme and the concomitant promise to cap welfare spending.

These initiatives have been disastrous. Not simply from the purview of the moral and social good, but even from the point of view of Labour's own self-interested survival. By pursuing these policies, Labour lost all sense of definition. They were never going to out Tory the Tories on questions of immigration, which - for the anti-Europe wing of the Conservative Party at least - has always been a fecund and productive political hunting ground. Ditto on the issue of benefit baiting. And so Labour found themselves stranded in a form of political limbo - too fearful to represent the interests of those below, not sufficiently full-bodied to appeal to those above. As they tried and tried again to return to that hallowed 'middle ground' - the rapidly narrowing political space beneath their feet - the party faithful must have caught from within the cracks its first glimpse of the abyss.

And yet, the leadership candidates (at least those with any chance to win) remain in a state of limbo today. Paralysed with a fear which has been so meticulously inculcated by the right wing press, terrified of being seen as union friendly, the candidates are rehashing a stale form of Blairite modernisation, as they move to the right in a trajectory which can only ever end in ignominious self-dissolution. Unable to connect with either the rich or the poor, the candidates unleash a never-ending series of platitudes which address everyone but speak to no one. 'Aspiration, 'Hope', 'Forward Thinking, 'Unity' 'Yay'. And so the Labour Party leadership contest trundles on.