Liz Kendall on Sturgeon, devolution and winning back Scotland

Liz Kendall is a woman on a mission. And what a mission it is.

Her campaign for Labour leader is the first leap in a project to reinvigorate the party and return it to government within just five years of its worst electoral reversal in three decades.

The odds are stacked against her even more than they are her party but Kendall is unshakeable, as I learn when we meet at a community centre in Dennistoun, Glasgow.

Dennistoun was once as red as it’s possible to be without annexing Budapest. Glasgow North East and its predecessor constituencies have been represented by a Labour MP without interruption since 1950 (save for Michael Martin’s nine-year tenure as Speaker). In May, Anne McLaughlin took it for the SNP on a 39% swing, the most dramatic anywhere in the UK. This is roughly equivalent to Liverpool Walton electing a Tory MP. In a landslide. On the same day that Accrington Stanley wins the FA Cup. On Jupiter.

If the surrounding symbol of Labour’s devastation intimidates Kendall, she doesn’t show it. I’m a big guy and, at 5ft 6ins, she is a good half-foot shorter than me but it feels like she towers over me the whole time. I am left in no doubt who is in charge of the conversation.

The centrist Leicester West MP is in Scotland for a leadership hustings where she is pitted against Brownite continuity candidates Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper and New Labour repudiator Jeremy Corbyn. Kendall seems the obvious choice for a party that needs to reengage Middle England. That is, if Labour actually wants to win.

Labour has turned introspective again, preferring internal debate to a conversation with the country. Kendall’s best hope is that some time in the next two months, her party recalls the pains of defeat and the rewards of victory. For realpolitik can lead Labour to one candidate in this leadership race.

Kendall might recover the Midlands and the South but Scotland is a more daunting prospect. I have argued that Scotland is lost for at least a generation and Labour’s next leader must concentrate on recapturing England. The interview, I tell her, is an opportunity to prove me wrong and show that the historic gains made by the SNP in May can be set back in an election cycle or two.

We begin with her summary of the causes of Labour’s drubbing.

She tells me: “We lost touch with too many parts of the country, we took too many people for granted. Too many of our best and brightest politicians thought that their future was in Westminster, not in Holyrood, and we didn’t set out a positive, optimistic, confident vision of the country for the future. Our offer was too narrow. We were passionate about scrapping the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and zero-hours contracts and raising the minimum wage.

“But if you weren’t on the minimum wage, if you owned your own home, or you were self-employed or run your own business, we had precious too little to say. We’ve always won as a party when we’ve had a broad, confident, optimistic offer for the future. That’s what we’ve got to do to win again.”

I put it to her that this boilerplate is perfectly sound for winning over Milton Keynes or Nuneaton but surely the SNP’s leftish rhetoric, whatever its record in government, tells her that Labour needs to vacate the centre ground to recuperate its vote north of the border.

No, she insists. Economic credibility is the only course to power for centre-left parties.

She presses the point: “We have to be a party that is trusted on the economy and that backs businesses and sound public finances because without that, you won’t create the jobs or invest in the public services people want and need… Centre-left parties right across Europe are struggling to find a way of showing what they’re for and who they’re for in a modern global world.

“We have to find a credible alternative to, on the one hand, ever increasing austerity that is leaving people behind and which is creating a more unequal society, and on the other hand, the fantasy politics of Syriza and Podemos, which isn’t delivering the results people want and need. That is the challenge we face as a Labour party in this country as do our sister parties right across Europe.”

Well, of course. Syriza has crashed and burned and the only hope for the Greek radicals is finding a way to monetise Paul Mason‘s sweet, sweet tears. The Spanish, should they follow Athens down the yellow brick road, will experience much the same results.

And the impeccably centrist, pro-business SNP is scarcely comparable to continental communists. Contrary to our soothing self-image, Scotland is not markedly to the left of England and in social affairs is sometimes more right-wing. New Labour performed better in Scotland than what preceded it; the party averaged 39% of the Scottish vote in the Foot-Kinnock years, 43% under Blair.

But myths matter in politics. In England, I aver, Labour’s challenge is to establish economic credibility so that it can help the poor and disadvantaged while in Scotland the party’s fiscal responsibility isn’t in doubt so much as its commitment to social justice.

Once again, I have paved a smooth path to more accommodating, soft-left territory. Once again, she spurns it.

Her voice grows firmer, but not sharper: “You cannot help the weak and the vulnerable simply by railing against the strong. This isn’t just what happened in 1997. In 1945, we had a vision to rebuild Britain post-Second World War. In 1964, Wilson seized the white heat of the technological revolution and said we could make it work for all. In 1997, we said that a stronger economy and a fairer society go hand-in-hand. That’s what we’ve always stood for when we’ve won.”

Kendall, you will have noticed by now, has that most precious skill in modern politics: The ability to speak at length without saying anything. To those seeking in politics a secular saviour, this is bound to be dispiriting. Kendall is in the business of resurrecting a party, not redeeming a politicised public space. It would be foolhardy to mistake this for a paucity of ideas; those she is keeping guarded in order to give herself maximum manoeuvrability. Amid the cautious bromides, her New Labour values and impulses shine through but they are in need of an anchor. She is a politician of substance and must not allow her presentational deftness to be confused with flimsiness.

I have one last go. Labour’s problem, I venture, is that the SNP has successfully framed nationalism as synonymous with social democracy. It doesn’t matter that the SNP occupies much the same policy ground as Labour, it has spun half the country the idea that voting SNP is not merely expressing support for left-wing outcomes, it is in itself a left-wing outcome. She can’t fight that tactic head-on; she has to adapt to it.

Kendall is having none of it: “We combat that house by house, street by street, and community by community… I believe that people have far more in common than what divides them and we have to get back to where people are and the issues they care about. Whether it’s in Glasgow or Gower or Grimsby, people want the same things: A good job that pays a decent wage. A home to call their own. Their kids to grow up in a safe place and go to a great school. To make some money so that they have something to look forward to. To know that there are decent public services. And when they retire, that they have something to look forward to and nothing to fear.”

Try as I might, I cannot get her to give an inch. After a few years of UK politicians falling over themselves to appease Scotland, this is refreshing. But it also hints at a steely determination that recalls not only Tony Blair but someone else. Someone even more dread in the minds of Labour partisans.

David Aaronovitch has suggested a redolence of Margaret Thatcher and in person Kendall evokes the descriptions I’ve read of the Iron Lady. She is a blur of impatience, a woman in a hurry. She knows where she wants to go and, like Grantham’s most famous daughter, is not content to wait for others to catch up. While not as intellectually buttressed or ideologically single-minded as Maggie, Kendall is similarly unyielding.

No matter how often I try to tempt her to the left, in the hopes of pandering to Scottish pieties, she’s not for turning. Labour will win from the centre. Labour will win England from the centre. Labour will win Scotland from the centre. At one point, I scan the room for signs of a handbag in preparation for a clobbering. You either go in for this sort of self-assurance or you don’t. If it discomfits her colleagues, I can’t imagine how a Cabinet of Tory public schoolboys will handle this comprehensive-educated emblem of the middle of the country.

If Britain wants a Labour Party without the soft-bellied apologism, Kendall might connect with voters in a way that Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown never could.

Little wonder the left views her as a New Labour termagant – “I’m not a Blairite,” she rebukes. “I’m a Kendallite.” – but even in Blairite circles there are mutterings that she has erred strategically in pitching her campaign from the right. Better to take the leadership from the centre then drag the party to where it has to be.

Still, she is much closer to public opinion than any of her rivals. And if Tories are said to fear her, the Scottish Nationalists are unenthusiastic too. For all the SNP’s success in demonising Scottish Labour as unpatriotic and closet Tories – “Scottish” Labour, as they style it – a UK Labour government could set back Nationalist plans for independence.

Despite my attempts to get her on the record on some sticky Scotland questions, she refuses to be drawn on deficiencies in the Scotland Bill or the circumstances for a second referendum. Asked her take on Nicola Sturgeon, Kendall’s tone is spikier than I expect. Jarringly so, because the First Minister is spoken of in near-reverential tones even by rival politicians in Scotland.

Kendall is more hard-headed: “She does not represent my politics. I believe that through the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more together than we do alone. I stand for solidarity; I think people have more in common than what divides them. That’s my politics and the politics of the Labour Party.”

Nevertheless, she must welcome a woman rising to the top job in Scottish politics. Yes, but only so far: “In the end, I focus on what people believe in and the politics they put forward. Whether they can build unity in this country and that means my politics are very different from hers.”

While careful not criticise the current devolution process, it is obvious she is not content with tweaks here and there.

She declares: “We need a new federal settlement across the United Kingdom and I also want to see more powers and controls out of Holyrood and down to cities, towns, and communities too. For me, putting power into people’s hands means devolution doesn’t stop at Holyrood. It requires us to go down much further.

“That is the new settlement we need in Scotland, across England and in Wales too. We are far too centralised as a country compared to other European countries but that’s not just about powers to Holyrood, it’s about powers down to local communities.”

I remain to be convinced that even a Kendall-led Labour Party could make significant gains in Scotland next time around or even the time after that but it would be a party of government and could use that platform to rebuild in its former heartlands.

The 19th century American senator Henry Clay, a three-time loser in campaigns for the Oval Office, remarked: “I had rather be right than president.” The Labour left would rather be wrong than in government. That is their prerogative and at least two candidates offer competing visions of righteous defeat. But those who want to replace Tory austerity with Labour prosperity know that without power Labour is little more than a media-savvy Citizens’ Advice Bureau.

Kendall’s selling point is that she is the fastest, most reliable route to power. There are those in Labour who would feel uncomfortable, even dismayed by her leadership – the tough decisions, the pace of change – but she will be hoping that the memory of May 7, 2015 fills them with greater dread.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Rwendland by Creative Commons 4.0.

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