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UK’s Labour seeks a chief to lead it out of the wilderness

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LONDON — Defeated political party seeks leader. Compass a plus.

Weeks after an electoral trouncing, Britain's opposition Labour Party is seeking a chief who can tell voters — and members — what the party stands for and where it is going. The candidates include two survivors from past Labour governments, a centrist lawmaker inspired by former Prime Minister Tony Blair and an old-time socialist left-winger.

The four contenders represent Labour's journey from union-backed party of the working class to centrist "New Labour" to crisis-ridden party rejected by an electorate worried about economic hard times.

Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said Labour is seen by many voters "as profligate with taxpayers' money, too open and generous and permissive on immigration and too kind to people who supposedly defraud the welfare system."

"None of that might actually be the case, but that is the perception, and perception is reality," Bale said. "That's the environment in which Labour has to operate."

Andy Burnham, 45, is the bookies' favorite to replace the defeated Ed Miliband. He is a former health minister who says his working-class northern roots set him apart from the London-centric political elite.

Yvette Cooper, 46, served in the Cabinet of Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, until Labour was kicked out of office in 2010. She's an experienced politician and half of Labour's leading power couple. Husband Ed Balls was the party's economy spokesman until he lost his seat in May's election.

Bale says Cooper is widely considered "a safe pair of hands." But, like Burnham, she is strongly associated with the Blair and Brown years.

Liz Kendall, 44, was elected to Parliament in 2010, which means she is inexperienced, but untainted by mistakes of the past. Supporters see her as closest to the spirit of Blair, a centrist who can win back moderate voters from the Conservatives.

"Too many people didn't trust us on the economy or with their taxes," Kendall said during a televised debate Wednesday. "That is the basic test of competence for any party that wants to govern. We have to address that or we won't win in 2020."

While Kendall has many backers within the party, the "Blairite" label is controversial. Blair won three elections, but many have not forgiven him for joining the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Jeremy Corbyn, 66, is a veteran left-wing lawmaker who got on the leadership ballot after a grassroots campaign by party members.

He's the antithesis of New Labour, arguing that the party should "rediscover its principled roots, rediscover the issues of equality, rediscover the issues of public service."

Some Labour members say Corbyn's inclusion reflects the party's commitment to open debate. For others, it represents a suicidal failure to abandon outdated dogmas.

Observers say none of the four candidates appears to be the magic bullet Labour needs: a politician with a Blair-like combination of charisma and new ideas.

"We're in a contest where everybody has something, but nobody has everything," Bale said.

The winner will be decided by a ballot of Labour members, replacing a contentious electoral-college system involving members, lawmakers and trade unions. The result will be announced at a party conference on Sept. 12.

Patrick Diamond, a former Labour policy adviser, said that before the party can win again, it needs to come to terms with why it lost, winning just 232 seats in Parliament to the Conservatives' 330. He says it wasn't just that Miliband was gawky and untelegenic, though that was a factor.

Many voters decided they simply trusted Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservatives more on the economy. Some northern, working-class Labour supporters switched to the anti-immigration U.K. Independence Party. In Scotland, Labour was reduced from 41 of 59 seats to just one, obliterated by the pro-independence Scottish National Party.

"It wasn't just the messenger," Diamond said. "It was the message.

"(Labour) will discover a winning formula, but how long will it take?" he said. "Will it take five years, or will it take 10 years or will it be 15 years?"

Recent history isn't encouraging for Labour, which was out of office for 18 years from 1979, and the Conservatives for 13 years after that.

Follow Jill Lawless on Twitter at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless