Why is Liz Kendall in the Labour Party and not the Conservatives?
This – not reconnecting with the voters or making life difficult for the government – is the subject dominating the Labour leadership race.
The meme is pushed on social media, where Kendall’s accusers have set up parody accounts depicting her as a candidate for the Tory leadership. A Facebook Q&A in which the Leicester West MP participated on Tuesday saw intemperate Labour supporters urge her to cross the floor and join David Cameron’s party.
Another occasion for resentment has been Kendall’s decision to support Harriet Harman in her acceptance of some of the government’s tax credit reforms. This prompted Trotskyite twink Owen Jones to announce to 10,000 viewers of his YouTube channel: “Labour support driving the children of low-paid workers deeper into hardship and poverty.”
John McTernan, who is considered right-wing because he prefers Labour governments to Tory governments, said the internal attacks on Kendall showed the party had “lost its senses”. “Some in Labour – maybe even too many – prefer the powerlessness of perpetual opposition,” he writes.
For proof look no further than private polling showing Jeremy Corbyn in the lead to succeed Ed Miliband. Frontrunner Andy Burnham is still the favourite and will likely win but a Corbyn second place has gone from unimaginable to numbly probable. The party faces the prospect of another left-leaning leader and one with a reinvigorated awkward squad.
Right now, Labour’s best chance of seeing the inside of Number 10 again is a remake of Love Actually.
Ideologues, those occasional stumblers upon insight, are asking the right question but to the wrong ends. Not “Why is Liz Kendall Labour?” but “Why is Liz Kendall Labour?” If today’s Labour Party rejects her espousal of long-standing mainstream policy on economics, business, and welfare, why should someone like Kendall be a member let alone seek to become leader?
Why shouldn’t she and MPs who think like her decamp to a new centre-left party? A moderate social democratic platform that represents the ambitions and aspirations of most Labour voters and many others too? The SDP realignment failed but perhaps the time has come to try again. Fortunately for Labour, Kendall actually believes in the party of which she has been a lifelong member. I reckon given the choice of fight or flight, she’d be a Healey not a Jenkins.
That is because Kendall is in the long and proud tradition of practical, reformist politics which spurred Hardie and Attlee, Gaitskell and Wilson. If we must talk in such crass terms, Kendall is more not less Labour than her critics because her fidelity is to that tradition and not to some Edenic fantasy of purity lost. She is committed to building and broadening Labour so it is strong enough to win again and on terms that allow it to redistribute wealth, alleviate poverty, and give ordinary people a fair go. That is why Liz Kendall is in the Labour Party and not the Conservative Party.
But what of her rivals for the leadership?
Why is Andy Burnham in the Labour Party? The MP for Leigh has many admirable qualities. He seems a likeable bloke. He comes across as sincere. He looks like that moderately attractive PE teacher you fantasised about as a teenager. True, his election as leader would be met with cheers from the Conservatives and would kickstart five long years of Mid Staffs, Scouse-baiting, and 1001 ways of saying “chippy northerner”.
None of these are good reasons not to vote for him. The absence of political vision, an inability to attract non-Labour voters, and the apparent equanimity with which his backers greet these faults is a different matter. The leader of the Labour Party is meant to be a prime minister in waiting, not head of comms for Amnesty International.
Why is Yvette Cooper in the Labour Party? Like Burnham, I imagine, because she believes in fairness and social justice. Like him, I don’t doubt her heart is in the right place. Wanting to do good is a laudable aim but one that can only be fulfilled by leading your party onto the uncomfortable territory where power is won and lost. Cooper has said nothing, not a single thing, in this race to signal that she is up to that task.
The great Australian Labor prime minister Paul Keating summed up opposition as “wandering in and out of each other’s offices having cold cups of tea at 11 o’clock”. The best that can be said for Burnham and Cooper is that they would keep the tea warm.
Why is Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party? This one stumps me. His ideological prescriptions are better suited to one of the rump Marxist outfits of the faculty lounge left. Contrary to the myth-making of his acolytes, Corbyn does not represent the “Old Labour Party” before it was corrupted by Blair and all that unseemly election-winning business. He belongs to a fringe always present in the labour movement and rejected by every successful Labour leader in a century.
Former MP Tom Harris laments, for lamenting is all that’s left to sensible Labour people, that his party is going back to the Eighties. I have argued something similar but I am beginning to wonder if this analysis captures the scale of Labour’s problem.
Labour in the 1980s was bedevilled by three lefts that made it unelectable: the entryists of the Militant Tendency, the hard-left of Tony Benn and Eric Heffer, and the soft-left as represented by Michael Foot and early Neil Kinnock. Each was fundamentally wrong but all were activist: They wanted to seize the party or the country to change things. Thirty years on, Labour’s left no longer wants to join battle; it would rather debate endlessly the terms of conflict.
We are principled, this thinking goes; we must stick to our truest impulses no matter what the voters say. They are not principled. Labour should just wait until they change their minds. They are flighty consumers, after all; they’ll get sick of this new washing powder soon enough and go back to the old one. False consciousness, innit.
This is arrogant, of course, but it is unforgivably lazy too. At least Militant were revolutionary socialists; these socialists are sedentary.
The most radical thing Tony Blair ever said had nothing to do with top-up fees or foundation hospitals, 45 minutes or the “forces of conservatism”. It was the opening salvo of the speech he delivered upon his election as Labour leader in July 1994: “I shall not rest until, once again, the destinies of our people and our party are joined together again in victory at the next general election.” The structure is stuffy and that redundant “again” a literary canker – these were the pre-Philip Collins days – but the content was truly daring. It served notice that Labour’s days as a pressure group were over. This was a party of government or it was nothing.
Among those for whom Labour is a debating society or an annual Jim Connell tribute sing-song, this was the primal scene of Blair’s betrayal and it is repeating itself in the candidacy of Liz Kendall. Traumatised all over again, they lash out and question her loyalty. This time they’re ready. This time they’ll stop the modernisers in their tracks.
From Scotland, this impotent fit seems bizarre. Although it has been effective in spinning itself as such to parts of the London liberal commentariat, the SNP is not a socialist party and nor is it a particularly social democratic one. There is a left-wing which includes Nicola Sturgeon and a right-wing embodied by Alex Salmond and every shade of opinion in between.
For all the Nationalists despise New Labour, they are its Scottish successors as can be seen from their eight years of low-tax, pro-business, tough-on-crime triangulating. Their backbenchers never rebel, seldom brief or leak to Sunday papers, and one must strain manfully to pick up even the mildest criticism of the party hierarchy or policy agenda. How is it possible that the SNP has absorbed the lessons of New Labour but not the party which originated “The Project”?
It is about time Labour’s pragmatists turned the interrogation around on the pious idlers.
If you think Liz Kendall is a Tory, why are you in the Labour Party? If you think Harriet Harman is a Tory, why are you in the Labour Party? If you think economic growth, sound public finances, a strong defence, and a workable welfare system are Tory precepts, why are you in the Labour Party?
And if these grievances are now mainstream in Labour, why should anyone who didn’t vote for them in 2015 vote for them in 2020? Why should anyone vote for them ever again?
Originally published on STV News.