Andy Burnham is one to watch in Labour leadership race | Martin Kettle

Like Cameron in 2005, Burnham could provide an upset with his centrist approach, but he must address Labour's past

Generals famously plan the next war by refighting the last one. Politicians, by the same token, tend to be beguiled by the last election campaign. This year's Labour party leadership election, though, will bear no comparison with the coronation of Gordon Brown in 2007 and will not have the same dynamic as the last time that Labour had a proper contest in 1994, either, when it was obvious that Tony Blair was the runaway favourite against his two rivals from the start. But it is possible that the last Conservative leadership contest offers a more interesting parallel for Labour.

In the Tory contest in 2005 following the resignation of Michael Howard, there were initially six contestants, as there are in the Labour race this time. Four of the six, moreover, had ministerial experience, as is also the case among the Labour contenders in 2010.

The key dynamic of the 2005 Tory race, however, was that David Cameron, who started as an outsider by comparison with David Davis, Kenneth Clarke and even briefly Malcolm Rifkind, managed to turn the contest on its head by having something absolutely distinctive to say about the party, which chimed with the wider electorate (and which was picked up in a Newsnight focus group moderated by Frank Luntz) and by succeeding in saying it well, above all when it really mattered, in his speech to the October 2005 party conference.

Is there a Cameron equivalent in the Labour field this time? The answer right now, as it was at the same stage in the 2005 Tory contest, is that it is far too soon to say. One thing that can definitely be said, however, is that neither Diane Abbott nor John McDonnell, the two candidates of the Labour left, seems very likely to do a Cameron. That's partly because they may not both get on the ballot by having enough nominations (Labour's high threshold to qualify is a disgrace). But it's mainly because their message is unlikely to resonate with the wider electorate, as Cameron's liberal reform message did in 2005. Mind you, if she gets on the ballot, I suspect Abbott may do better than many people think.

My guess is that Labour's most likely Cameron might be Andy Burnham. I don't say this because I favour him; I say it because he seems to me, objectively, to have the most potential to come from behind and upset the odds. Certainly the odds are not particularly in Burnham's favour right now, so he has a big job to do to get enough nominations and to give his campaign lift-off. But if any of the candidates are going to turn this election on its head, as Cameron did in the Tory race five years ago, it could be Burnham.

That's because he has something to say and a voice in which to say it. The first is the more important. Burnham is the one candidate in the race who appears not to be in some way running against the Labour government of the past 13 years. The Miliband brothers, Ed Balls and the two candidates of the left are all, in their different ways, putting distance (of different amounts, of course) between themselves and the Blair-Brown years.

Burnham, interestingly, is not doing this, or at least not so much. Above all he defends the essential New Labour opening towards the centre-ground. He also insists the Blair-Brown governments did a lot right for Britain. He makes a tough pitch on crime and immigration. He has even stuck by the vote he cast on Iraq.

In one obvious perspective this seems dumb, not smart. Labour are looking for a new and future-oriented pitch that will win political and electoral battles in 2015. So defending the past, especially when it includes something as toxic as Iraq, and defending it, more broadly, just when New Labour has been humbled in a general election, may seem both stubborn and wrong. Yet the big lesson of Labour's recent past is a good one: Labour wins elections when it reaches out to the centre and loses them when it doesn't.

Moreover, the big Tory lesson of the opposition years 1997-2005 is that leadership candidates who wanted the party to appeal more to its core vote than the wider electorate were leading the party into a cul-de-sac. Cameron's lesson was to be self-critical and to focus on the centre-ground. Burnham hasn't been self-critical enough about the failings of the New Labour years yet. But he and David Miliband are the two candidates who appear most comfortable with reinventing the centrist approach of Blair in new ways.

Given that David and Ed Miliband are in most eyes the favourites to win, this potentially puts Burnham in the same position that Cameron was in 2005, as a newer face than the front-runners but with an electorally popular centrist message. Has Burnham got what it takes to hone and renew the message and then deliver it authentically? I have no idea. He looked jolly nervous on Andrew Marr's programme at the weekend. But Burnham will never have a better opportunity to prove he is up to it than the one he has got now.


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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