Liz Kendall could help Labour regain purpose — and power

The Conservatives won the General Election. That much has sunk in for Labour people.

But how they won. The Tories won men in every age bracket. They won women over 50 and overall. They won private sector workers by a margin of 17 points and trailed Labour amongst public sector employees by just three percentage points.

They won voters who earn more than £20,000 per year. They won outright owners. They won mortgage-payers. They won private renters. They won school leavers and, narrowly, they won graduates. They won over-50s, of course, but they also won 30-39 year olds and were tied amongst those in their forties.

They won the South West, the East, the South East, the East Midlands and the West Midlands. They won Gower, in West Glamorgan, which has voted Labour in every general election for more than a century.

If these figures aren’t spine-chilling enough, may I remind you of the sucking black hole of electoral oblivion that is Scotland. Not only did Labour lose 40 of its 41 seats to the SNP, in three quarters of those seats the Nationalists took more than 50% of the vote.

The modal Labour voter is now a Londoner in her twenties who reads the Guardian and works in the public sector. That is not a coalition for government; it’s a Sophie Kinsella character.

Electoral coalitions matter. Gerald Kaufman, Labour MP for Manchester Gorton, might be a bit mad but his mid-90s précis of the Foot/Kinnock years remains bracingly blunt:

“We couldn’t win an election just with the votes of the poor and the deprived and the ethnic minorities. My constituency is a constituency which is predominantly composed of voters who are poor and deprived, with a considerable number of people from the ethnic minorities. I kept increasing my majority at every general election but it didn’t do my constituents any good because what they needed was a different government. The only way we could get a different government was by adding to the votes of the poor and the deprived and the ethnic minorities the votes of affluent people living in the south east of England and other parts of England.”

Labour appeared to have learned this lesson, however grudgingly, as it racked up victory after victory under Tony Blair. Now, eight years on from his departure, Labour is raking over the cinders of its worst electoral burnout since 1987, a defeat brought about in large part thanks to a conscious effort to unlearn the lessons of the 1980s. Ed Miliband’s objective was to kill New Labour and to give the voters a clear choice between his party and the Tories. He succeeded on both counts.

Impossiblism

Labour is a toddler that has to be told time and again that the cooker is burny but every now and then throws a fit and pulls the scalding pot down around it. May’s rout was the rebuke for another tantrum but the sting lingers in the present leadership contest. Having driven the grown-ups from the party, Labour faces a starkly unserious field for its top job. Two soft-left continuity candidates compete with a hard-left dreamer and an MP who has only been in Parliament five years. Labour doesn’t look like an alternative government and, what’s worse, it doesn’t seem to care.

For proof, look no further than Unite’s intervention in favour of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn is the darling of the impossiblist wing of the Labour Party, a low-watt Tony Benn and just as poisonous in his stoking of betrayal and resentment. Economic realities are mere ideological constructs, Tory chicanery that can be willed away. Labour is only really Labour when it loses from the Left. When it wins from the centre, it has sold out.

If his politics are grievance-based, his associations are downright extreme. He has spoken of his “friends” in the anti-Semitic terrorist gangs Hamas and Hezbollah. (Little wonder British Jews favour the Tories over Labour by a three-to-one margin.) No serious Labour member would throw in their lot with him.

The alternatives are more palatable, if just as uninspiring. Andy Burnham is a bit-of-rough Ed Miliband and if he differs philosophically or on policy from the former leader, it eludes me. His politics are a farrago of pious corporatism and self-loathing Blairism, a mishmash that caught up with him in an excruciating Newsnight appearance on NHS private contracting. He has passion and sincerity but no apparent vision beyond wanting to give people nice things and stop bad things from happening.

There is more edge to Yvette Cooper. She has shown mettle in Commons debates and her public persona hints at depth. I don’t know where she wants to take Labour and I’m not sure she does either but once she does, I reckon she’d stick to her guns. But like Burnham she seems to lack political imagination and has yet to dare her party out of its comfort zone. In the end, she is a Kinnock when Labour desperately needs a Blair.

That leaves us with Liz Kendall, the inconvenient candidate. She is anathema to a party sunk in its latest bout of introspection, resenting a Britain that doesn’t work the way Owen Jones said it did and agonising over how it can make these grasping, selfish bigots see sense. Once again, Labour is “half in love with easeful Death” and not in the mood for a leader who wants to breathe new life into the party.

The Leicester West MP is “the candidate the Tories fear” but not half as much as Labour does. For she promises to break new ground in her mission to make Labour the parliamentary wing of aspirational Britain, as we can deduce from her speeches and interviews. Kendall Labour would be “the champion of people who take a risk, create something, build it up and make a success of it”. It would favour investment in early years education over populist cuts to tuition fees and back free schools and other models of parental involvement. The party would continue to reform public services and put service-users at the heart of delivery.

Thatcher

Kendall Labour would seek to reduce debt as a proportion of GDP and aim for surpluses when they are economically feasible. The party would be “as passionate about wealth creation as [it is] about wealth distribution” and would “offer hope and opportunity, not merely sympathy and grievance”.

Internationally, Labour would “no longer stand by while the Prime Minister weakens our country and allows the world to become less secure” and would commit to meeting Nato’s target of spending two per cent of GDP on defence. Internally, power would be devolved from Whitehall to the regions, cities and towns of Britain and England would get a greater say over its affairs than the current asymmetric devolution set-up allows.

Labour would be a daring party that assailed the Tories not merely as enemies of the poor and the marginalised but as a roadblock to a dynamic, prosperous and secure country for people from all walks of life. This sounds perfectly reasonable to the average voter but it is heresy to those who think the purpose of the Labour Party is to feel morally superior to people who read the Daily Mail. The biggest strike against Kendall, and what could ultimately do for her, is that she might make Labour electable again.

These are fine words but do they amount to anything substantive? Kendall has no ministerial experience (though neither did Tony Blair) and she looks too small and timid on TV, which shouldn’t matter but it does. On immigration, she favours an Australian-stylepoints system, which is culturally narrow and economically illiterate in a global labour market. But in this the public is with her and she could do real damage to Ukip’s appeal to traditional Labour demographics. Cosmopolitanism, like smoking and library membership, is now a minority pursuit in Britain.

The real sticking point for me is that when I close my eyes I still can’t picture her standing outside Number 10. Of course, the same was said of Margaret Thatcher when she challenged Ted Heath for the Tory leadership in 1975. She was not Britain’s idea of a prime minister but was moulded into the role by advisers and stylists and voice coaches. Kendall should seek the counsel of New Labour’s Gamaliels: Peter Mandelson for political positioning; Alan Milburn for policy; John McTernan for strategy and communications. Blairism reheated isn’t going to satisfy 2020 Britain, where social immobility will loom large and public finances will not accommodate quick fixes, but the Blair analysis – that Labour only wins when it connects its social democratic ideals to economic growth and public opinion – remains gospel.

Like early years Maggie, Kendall has to be tougher without sounding shrill and hard-headed without seeming aloof. She should take a day away from bread-and-butter issues to give a speech on foreign affairs or security, a subject where she can project strength, determination and vision. Hook Cameron from the right, slap down the pieties of the left, outline her thoughts on Islamist terrorism, Russian belligerence, Israel and the Palestinians, the rise of China, and the future of the European Union. There are no votes in foreign policy – in a Labour leadership election, it might cost you – but if Kendall can give the party and the country an idea or a slogan or an image that defines her as a leader, she would neutralise Burnham and Cooper’s ministerial advantage.

Language of priorities

The next Labour leader will be forced to confront four hard realities:

Political. Tony Blair was right about almost everything. Ed Miliband was right about almost nothing. Labour can only win from the centre ground. The Left is electoral wasteland.

Geographical. Labour is no longer a national party and outside London and the North, it is barely a party at all. There are 13 English county councils with not a single Labour MP. The Conservatives had their best night in Wales since 1983. Scotland has nine times as many billionaires as Labour MPs.

Social. Ukip are in second place in one-fifth of Labour seats. For working-class voters, Labour is no longer the only game in town. We are still some way from Ukip posing a comparable threat in England to the SNP in Scotland but it would be foolhardy to ignore them.

Attitudinal. There is a growing suspicion that Labour abhors hard work and demeans aspiration. The day after the election, a London cab driver told me he had voted Tory for the first time in his life because “Labour hates people like me”, referring to the ambitious and the entrepreneurial. If this suspicion is allowed to set in, it will prove fatal for Labour’s electoral chances.

Despite her relative inexperience, Kendall thinks and speaks like she grasps the scale of Labour’s challenges. To achieve a bare parliamentary majority, Labour needs to win 94 additional seats next time. I’m not yet convinced that Kendall could pull that off in one go but I’m certain that neither Burnham nor Cooper could. And if after the next election she found herself leading the largest parliamentary group, forced to sup with the Scots Nats, English voters would trust her to guard their interests.

Nationalism

For a strong SNP will be a fact of life for some time to come. English Labour friends keep asking me how the party can win back Scotland. Some are still friends after hearing my response. Burnham believes “the road to Downing Street goes through Glasgow”. This, as I’ve explained already, is a fundamental misreading of what has happened north of the border. Scotland has undergone a generational shift that will take years and probably decades to overcome. If Labour is to return to government any time soon, it has to focus on winning back England. Kendall – Middle England made flesh – is better placed than her rivals to begin wooing the Midlands and the South.

Should she overcome the odds – to say nothing of Labour’s inherent conservatism – and be elected leader, Liz Kendall would be confronted by a rebuilding operation analogous to that left behind by Michael Foot in 1983. She would have to fight, fight and fight again to save the party she loves. Downing Street would be, at best, five years away and a working majority maybe a decade. Every day would be long, many of them unrewarding, and the only certainties would be redrawn boundaries, a snarky press, and backbench and union obstructionism.

But she is obviously hungry for it and Labour would be foolish not to give her a chance. Kendall is a risk. Burnham and Cooper offer the warm reassurance of respectable defeat.

Great political parties do not cease upon the midnight with no pain. Those who rely on them suffer keenly, as Gerald Kaufman’s constituents did in the 1980s and as today’s poor and vulnerable will if Labour again chooses self-indulgence over leadership. The Labour Party does not belong to its MPs, officers, or even its members. (Nor does it belong to political commentators.) Labour belongs to the millions of people who suffer when it is out of power. No one, however many years they’ve given or however many envelopes they’ve stuffed, has the right to wreck it out of timidity or ideological vanity.

Liz Kendall’s candidacy is an audacious effort to turn Labour into an election-winning juggernaut again. Will the party let her get away with it? If it spurns this opportunity, it will find itself out of power for a generation. Labour would richly deserve that fate but the country does not. And as Kendall would say: “The country comes first”.

Originally published on STV News

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