An open letter to a Labour Party losing its way

Dear Labour,

You don’t know me. I am not part of the Labour family. I have voted for you once, from memory. So you might dismiss this letter out of hand. Keep your nose out of our business. Fair enough.

But while I’m not blood, I am a friend. Not an ideological ally as such but someone who believes good government requires effective opposition and smart policymaking needs nudges from the centre-left as well as the centre-right.

I come from a Labour family and retain a sentimental attachment to your party and your cause. I have written about this before, in case you doubt my intentions.

That’s why I look at what has become of you with despair and some anger. You are the only social democratic party of any prominence in British politics. You founded the NHS and created much of the welfare state. You granted colonies their independence and helped to form Nato, then a great bulwark of free nations.

Race and sex discrimination are illegal because of you and you are the reason employers are liable for their employees’ health and safety. You introduced the minimum wage, civil partnerships, free childcare, the Human Rights Act, and devolution. How is it that you find yourself still debating the merits of power versus ideological purity?

Jeremy Corbyn obviously strikes a chord with many of you. I can’t claim to understand it but I know the feeling is sincere. You need passion in politics but don’t confuse it with emotion. I teared up too when they sang Bread and Roses in Pride. Then I remembered that the miners’ strike happened because there was a Tory government and there was a Tory government because there wasn’t a Labour government and there wasn’t a Labour government because Labour had lurched far from the mainstream.

Labour people talk about these years as “Thatcherism” but it’s more complicated than that. Privatising state monopolies, selling council houses, and trade union reform – that was Thatcherism. But the excesses – race riots, unemployment, wholesale destruction of industrial heartlands – deserve a name that reflects deeper culpability. We should call them Bennism, for it was Labour’s ideological self-indulgence that kept Mrs Thatcher in power for so long.

Bennism is getting a 2015 upgrade. The electoral result will be much the same as will be the responsibility for the social fall-out: Osbornite economics, Corbynite enablers.

I know this leadership contest isn’t all you might have hoped for. You wanted big beasts and big ideas and neither is on offer here. All the same, you have to make a choice – and a realistic one.

Jeremy Corbyn can’t win a general election in Britain. Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t win a general election in a remake of A Very British Coup. His elevation to the leadership would be followed by a whirr of publicity, maybe a spike in the opinion polls, “he tells it like it is, he does”, by-election pick-up here, nice bit of Commons oratory there, then disaster. The British like eccentrics but they don’t want them anywhere near their wallets or their national defence.

What of the alternatives? Andy Burnham’s main policy is that he’s a northerner; if you cut him he bleeds pie and mash. Yvette Cooper is an earnest Brownite wonk but at least she’s more substantial. If either of them becomes Labour leader, the next time we’ll hear from them will be their concession speech to George Osborne five years from now.

Liz Kendall is the only candidate who can talk to Middle England and you seem to hold that against her. You sneer at Middle England, ridicule their aspirations, and think people who save to send their kids to private school are the enemy. They’re not the enemy; they’re the country. Before you can win back their trust, and their vote, you’ll have to stop resenting them.

So I sympathise with you but while I hug you with one hand, I feel like slapping you with the other.

It’s time to grow up and realise it’s not about you, how you feel, or which candidate most faithfully echoes your views. It’s about picking a leader who can beat the Tories in 2020. And don’t tell me you’d rather lose on principle than win by compromising. Because you aren’t the ones who will lose; it’ll be those who need a Labour government: The poor, the vulnerable, the unemployed. Don’t spin me a line about Labour benefiting from more time in opposition to decide what it stands for. Labour stands for a strong economy and a fair society. There. That’s your mission. Get on with it.

The test of a political programme is whether it is sufficiently in earnest about the objectives to adopt the means needed to realise them. It is very easy to set out a list of aims. What matters is whether it is backed up by a genuine workmanlike plan conceived without regard to sectional vested interests and carried through.

Not my words. The words of your 1945 manifesto, a paean to practical progressive politics.

The Labour Party exists to do good, not to feel good. You have to rediscover the place where principles and pragmatism meet. That is the place where Labour wins.

And if you are no longer for winning, what are you for?

Yours,

Stephen

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

Is David Cameron incredibly smart or incredibly dumb?

David Cameron is either the savviest political strategist in the land or the most dim-witted.

I haven’t decided yet.

His comments to journalists ruling out a second independence referendum are a case in point.

He said: “I think it is important that a referendum is legal and properly constituted and that is what we had, and it was decisive, so I do not see the need for another one.”

At first glance, this looks like a bone-headed move. An English Tory prime minister (might as well throw “toff” and “public schoolboy” in here too) has just told Scotland it can’t have another referendum. No matter what Scots think; no matter what their elected representatives say. Any mandate delivered by the Scottish people via the ballot box would be invalidated with an imperious swish of Cameron’s hand.

If Nicola Sturgeon didn’t tell the French ambassador she was gunning for a Tory victory in May, maybe she should have. For Cameron has saved her from her own party by taking a legally binding referendum off the table. The SNP used to be divided between gradualists and fundamentalists; now the gradualists are those who want a second referendum as soon as feasible and the fundies the ones with signs in their garden reading “Independent Scotland. Population: 1,617,989”.

Imagine if she had been bounced into pledging a re-run in the manifesto for the 2016 Holyrood election, a poll she is all but guaranteed to win. She would find herself saddled with a constitutional do-over and no clear majority for independence in the country, let alone more coherent answers on currency, oil revenue or EU membership.

In those circumstances, Scotland might have rejected a breakaway for a second time, if by a narrower margin. Such a defeat would take independence off the table for a generation — a real-world generation, not an SNP generation.

Now she doesn’t have to worry about any of this. She can leverage Cameron’s intervention to pry some more soft Unionists, already unhappy with the emerging Scotland Bill settlement, over to the Yes column. In kiboshing another vote in this Parliament, the Prime Minister — a Conservative and Unionist prime minister, no less — might have made it easier for the nationalists to win a second plebiscite when it does happen.

That’s one way to look at Cameron’s comments. Here is another: Maybe, instead of walking into an SNP trap, the Tory leader knows exactly what he is doing. Maybe he figures that there’s nothing for him to win in Scotland and so nothing to lose either. By ruling out a second referendum on his watch, Cameron riles the Scots and keeps them voting SNP, making it nigh on impossible for Labour to win an election any time soon.

At the same time, he gets to remind the Scottish Government that for all its highfalutin talk about mandates and sovereign will, the constitution is reserved to the UK Parliament. That body, not Holyrood, will decide when and if another referendum is held.

There’s a little jab of revenge too. You give me a bloody nose over fox-hunting, you can whistle for your second referendum.

There are risks for Cameron. The Scottish Government could hold a consultative vote and exert moral and even international pressure on the UK to recognise the outcome, or at least permit another legal referendum. That is unlikely under the calm and steady leadership of Nicola Sturgeon.

The SNP could still — and were always going to — raise merry hell during the Tory divisions leading up to the EU referendum. The Prime Minister’s majority is paper-thin; he doesn’t need any more enemies.

Nicola Sturgeon’s proven deftness of touch will be called for too. She has spent her life climbing the ranks of a political party only to find she is leading a quasi-devotional movement. For too many SNP members, independence is not merely sensible but obvious — too obvious to be left to the waxing and waning of public sentiment. The voters, they assure themselves, must have been converted to Yes in their droves by the lacklustre execution of The Vow. If the constitution is your whole world and you see it through the prism of betrayal and grievance, you would want a consultative referendum with haste.

The First Minister will have to be firm and if need be remind them who’s in charge. Her “material change” test remains sound and the most reliable route to independence at this time.

Another danger lurks for the Nationalists. If Cameron has put independence off the agenda for the next five years, and Sturgeon is happy to go along with that, Scottish politics returns to bread-and-butter issues like health, education, justice and the economy. Here the Edinburgh government finds itself with a mixed record.

Shorn of their flags and foam fingers, the SNP might find themselves a normal political party again, at the mercy of voters anxious for results. That would be no bad thing for effective public policymaking but a challenge for Nicola Sturgeon’s party.

There are rewards and pitfalls to Cameron’s gambit for the Tories and SNP alike. But for Labour, this is a tall, cold glass of bad. It can hurt them electorally in Scotland and politically in England, a few more kicks to a wounded beast.

Once again, David Cameron is playing politics with the future of the United Kingdom. This is high-wire stuff: He could pull it off with aplomb — or he could plummet gracelessly to the ground below, bringing the Union down around his head.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © UK in Italy by Creative Commons 2.0.

Labour needs another leader with Tony Blair’s rebel soul

His role in the Labour leadership election has been called “counterproductive”,“totally unacceptable”, and “very silly”.

Not Jeremy Corbyn – unilateralist, friend of Hamas and Hezbollah, committed opponent of economic reality – but Tony Blair.

The former prime minister’s intervention last week into the contest to decide who will lose the 2020 election to George Osborne stirred the pungent stupidity never far from the surface on the Labour left.

You expect it from Diane Abbott, who has made it her life’s work to keep Labour out of government (with some success), but John Prescott’s sniping was particularly ingrate for someone who owes his entire ministerial career to Tony Blair’s indulgence. I suppose that is what happens when you take a deck hand and stick him in a first mate’s uniform.

The reaction to the most successful leader in the history of the Labour Party is another signal that this a party no longer interested in government. We have dwelled enough on the Labour leadership election – Punishment Park for the centre-left – and I am more interested in Blair’s place in the firmament of British politics.

He is closely identified with the Third Way, a late 20th century movement of progressive politicians who returned their parties to government via the centre ground. Leading practitioners include Bill Clinton, Gerhard Schröder, and Romano Prodi while Australia’s Bob Hawke and Paul Keating are the uncredited progenitors. Although denounced at the time for selling out their principles, these statesmen came to be respected, even revered by their parties.

Not so Tony Blair. Many in Labour are circumspect about his legacy, others sharply hostile. Far from a Labour man, he was a Tory entryist who captured the party and turned it to his own ends, like an Estuary-toned Trotskyist. His government was too cautious, critics say, and failed to embed a new political consensus. During the 2015 general election, a number of Labour candidates publicly refused donations from their former leader.

Back when Michael Gove trolled the liberal intelligentsia from Wapping instead of Whitehall, he penned a panegyric of sorts to Blair. It was the eve of military action against Saddam Hussein and the Labour prime minister was proving a staunch and clear-sighted ally to President Bush and giving his party and the press fits of the vapours in the process. Seizing the moment to poke some wounds, then Times columnist Gove announced: “As a right-wing polemicist, all I can say looking at Mr Blair now is, what’s not to like?”

The Lord Chancellor is long overdue a reply.

What’s a right-winger not to like about Tony Blair? How about introducing a minimum wage, tax credits, the Human Rights Act, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and civil partnerships? Or bringing in Sure Start, paid paternity leave, statutory paid holiday leave (then raising it above European requirements), and free nursery education for three-and-four-year-olds?

Nor were traditionalists keen on his ban on fox-hunting, repeal of Section 28, and removal of most of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords.

It must have been pretty galling too, after denouncing Blair’s “target culture”, to watch him cut in-patient waiting lists by 50%, slash waiting times from 13 weeks to four, and lift600,000 children out of poverty. Worse, he only went and delivered 39,000 more NHS doctors and 81,000 more nurses, hired 39,000 more teachers and 103,000 more teaching assistants, and recruited 175,000 more apprentices.

British nationalists were less than enthusiastic about the peace he brokered in Northern Ireland and the Bloody Sunday inquiry he established. Isolationists hardly cheered when he rescued Sierra Leone from armed militiamen, helped stop Slobodan Milošević’s ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, ousted the theocratic Taliban in Afghanistan, and deposed mass murderer Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

If you incline to the political left, this is not a legacy to defend. It’s a legacy to hoist on your shoulders and carry through every street in the land with songful joy and pride unbecoming. Allowing that you might lament the fallout from military intervention in Iraq, as a left-winger looking at the rest of Tony Blair’s record, what’s not to like?

The answer lies in what kind of “left” person you are. If you conceive of politics along the old left-right conflict of class, command economics versus free markets, and East against West, Blair is not the man for you.

Here is how he sees the world:

“The forces shaping the world at this moment are so strong and all tend in one direction. They are opening the world up. I sometimes say to people that in modern politics, the dividing line is often less between traditional left versus right; but more about open versus closed.”

In this worldview, conflict arises between democratic liberalism and Islamism, social democracy and nationalism, tolerance and chauvinism. Once we understand this perspective, we can begin to see where Tony Blair is coming from and recognise it as a progressive rather than a conservative stance.

As he puts it in his memoirs: “It is true that my head can sometimes think conservatively especially on economics and security; but my heart always beats progressive, and my soul is and always will be that of a rebel.”

Blair in government was an enemy of conservatives of the left and of the right, and to this day boasts an opposition coalition of Trots, Eurosceptics, homophobes, Saddam groupies, the Daily Mail, Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, the Countryside Alliance, and people who think New York stockbrokers had it coming. Unlikely bedfellows, you might suppose, but all share contempt for Blair’s liberal cosmopolitan worldview, with its open societies, blurred identities, and moral universalism.

When traditionalists accused him of undermining the family, Blair pressed ahead on LGBT rights because he understood what was at stake.

When self-styled anti-imperialists said Arab culture was incompatible with democracy, he dismissed this racist view and now Iraqis are four elections into their fledgling democracy.

When narrow nationalists said it was unpardonable folly to send the RAF to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Blair and Nato allies recognised their duty to humanitarian principles. (Such people often veil their insularism in the language of international law but inevitably slip when they rail against “foreign wars” in “far-off” lands.)

It is true that he sometimes failed to meet his own standards. His pandering to public prejudices on immigration and asylum was hardly faithful to his open society model and his instinctive authoritarianism problematic when it came to identity cards and some aspects of anti-terror legislation. No politician is a paragon.

By conventional wisdom, there were three great prime ministers of the 20th century. Churchill secured our freedom, Attlee created the NHS and the welfare state, and Thatcher rescued our economy and rekindled our love of liberty. Blair deserves a place alongside these titans for recognising the struggle against Islamism as the defining issue of our age.

There was more too. He championed political and services reform, liberalised our culture, and advanced our values and interests abroad. The Conservative Party was forced (eventually) to return to sanity after two decades of Maastricht-induced madness. Our pro-gay marriage, NHS-investing, minimum-wage-hiking, tax-cuts-for-the-low-paid Tory prime minister would have been impossible without Blair. He understood where Britain was, where it could be taken, where it could not, and what it thought in its most private moments. Who needs a programmatic ideology when you have intuition like that?

Where his legacy is lacking it is because he didn’t go far enough, extending choice in health and education but stopping short of more radical reform. It is increasingly clear that his biggest mistake as Labour leader was not breaking the funding link with the trades unions, an anachronistic set-up that gives organised ideologues undue influence on the party and public policy.

Ironically for someone diagnosed with a messiah complex by the Kings Place school of political psychology, Blair was remarkably relaxed about modern Britain. He was at ease with the country he found and encouraged us to be at ease with ourselves. Those for whom politics has supplanted religion as the true path to redemption cannot make peace with this. These are people who mean to improve us, to save our souls. They are the Labour left who want to make us less selfish, the Tory right who yearn to make us more British, and the SNP which seeks independence to make Scots more Scottish.

Soul matters in politics. It’s what sets the visionaries apart from the lunatics and the leaders from the technocrats. If Tony Blair’s soul is that of a rebel, it owes to that most British streak of rebellion: Against do-gooders, busybodies and know-it-alls. The rebellion of ordinary people who want to go about their lives untroubled by the grand schemes of politicians and intellectuals. It is that soul that drew the British public to Blair and his progressive heart, beating with idealism, that drove them away again. Iraq and the war on terror, they felt, was less about our security than our moral destiny.

As it searches for a new leader, Labour should do more than look to Tony Blair’s example. It should try to understand him. When it does, it will come to learn that Labour politics –winning Labour politics – is not really about left and right. It’s about heart and soul.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Müller / MSC by Creative Commons 3.0.

Why I hate Scotland

I’m often asked by Scottish Nationalists why I hate Scotland, usually in response to some shockingly treasonous behaviour on my part. Such as asking the SNP to explain its tax policy or raising doubts about the latest plans to build a monument to Alex Salmond.

To save them the trouble, I have compiled a list of the reasons I hate Scotland. It’s in no particular order. My contempt varies from day to day. 

Saltires

Saltires on car aerials

Saltires in back gardens

Saltires in Twitter profiles

People who paint saltires on their children’s faces

Dundee

Chicken is universally pronounced “chitt’en”

Tartan

Tartan Army

Bagpipes

Kilts

Scots Wha Hae

“Weans”, “bairns”, “loons”, and “quines”

Duncan Hothersall

ScotRail

Celtic

“Rangers”

People who write “Rangers”

Aberdeen

Aberdonians

Aberdonians who drone on about how great Aberdeen is but not great enough for them to actually live there

Duncan Hothersall (just to be clear)

Gerry Hassan

Licensing laws

Everyone pretends Gaelic is a living language

Everyone pretends Scots is any kind of language

The letters page of The Herald

Scottish football fans bang on about that time they almost won the World Cup more than England fans bang on about that time they actually won the World Cup

Everything north of Milngavie

Everything south of Milngavie

Milngavie

The inability to disagree on politics without accusing someone of being a quisling/traitor/MI5 operative

Liz Lochhead

Jingoism

Millionaire shortbread where the caramel comes out all fudgy instead of gooey

People who still say “guisin’” instead of trick-or-treating

Dalmarnock

The fact everybody gets Daft Limmy except me

The fact nobody gets Jim Murphy except me (and JK Rowling)

Wee runs in the car up the Campsies

Martin Compston

The films of Martin Compston

The face of Martin Compston

Crispy rolls

Haggis-flavoured crisps

Rannoch Moor

David Torrance

The pride taken in mediocrity

Airdrie

“What school did you go to?”

Authoritarianism

Salt ‘n’ sauce on chips

Chips on shoulders

Moral superiority

Alasdair Gray

The Evening Times

Midges

Jamie Borthwick

Mince ‘n’ tatties

“We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns”

Eddi Reader

People say “Hogmanay” instead of New Year’s Eve

Anti-Englishness

Edinburgh Rock

Scottish Country Dancing

“Wha’s Like Us?” tea towels

Robert Burns

“Aye, nobody goes away fur the Fair fortnight anymore”

Sean Connery

Oatcakes

Thistles

Pete Wishart

Leith

“You’ll have had your tea, then”

Jimmy Shand

“Wastemonster”

Highland cows

Calling lakes “lochs”

“Aye”

“Naw”

“Mibbe”

The “it’s shite being Scottish” monologue from Trainspotting

Saying “how” when you mean why (via Holly Russell)

Drizzly drizzle (via Johann Lamont)

Humourlessness

So. Much. Humourlessness.

It’s only ever 24 hours between one bunch of arseholes taking to the streets and another bunch following them.

“Aye, ye know, like ye dae”

Anti-Americanism

Saying “Unionist” but meaning English

Saying “we welcome immigrants” but not meaning English

The Scottish Labour Party

Fife

“Neeps”

People who respond to the first sign of rain in March with “Well, that’s us had wir summer, then”

The fact that said people are invariably right

Local Hero

Sandi Thom

You have to leave to make something of your life

Resentment towards those who do

Donald Dewar is considered a political titan

Saying “scullery” instead of kitchen

Sheep on the road at night

Bill Leckie

There’s more racial diversity in an Alabama golf club

The Proclaimers

“Civic Scotland”

Woollen mills

Glasgow City Council

#SaorAlba

Smirr. (Apparently it means drizzly rain.) (Also via Johann Lamont)

“Freedom Square” (via boglestone)

River City (via Sam F)

Gregory’s Girl

The crusts on Mother’s Pride

McWitch from Rentaghost (via Ern Malley)

Irn-Bru (Sorry babes)

Jeremy Corbyn supporters. (Even the ones who aren’t Scottish.)

McIntosh adverts

 

“Ye ‘hink yir better than the rest ae us?!”

Vote No Borders wasn’t actually a Dateline Scotland parody

All baked goods come with currants

Standard English is “talkin’ posh”

Our academics are either mediocre dullards or fans with funding

Uist, which until a year ago I thought was pronounced “Weest”

Hawick, which until last Thursday I thought was pronounced “Hah-wick”

All other stupid Scottish place name pronunciations

Caledonia

Scaremongering (via Thomas Simpson)

“Scaremongering!” (via Johann Lamont)

Bagpipers inside pubs when you’re trying to have a quiet drink (via Cat Headley)

David Clegg

David Wells

Paul Cruikshank

Callum Steele

Ruth Davidson

The Scotland Office

tumblr_inline_nsmmh0q2Wq1t2shgt_1280.png

Scott A. W. Brown

The Edinburgh Festival

Alastair Brian

Other soulless gingers

Jamie Ross

Paul Cruikshank

Feature image © Kim Traynor by Creative Commons 3.0.

It’s not enough to be right, in politics you have to win too

Two days before the 1983 election, and resigned to the inevitable, Neil Kinnock sought the only solace available to losers.

Labour was about to be buried in a Conservative landslide but at least it was in the right. It had stuck to its principles, come what may.

In a speech in Bridgend, he intoned: “If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday, I warn you not to be ordinary; I warn you not to be young; I warn you not to fall ill; and I warn you not to grow old.”

Progressives will have one of two takes on these words. Either you cherish them as a comfort during the brittle winter of Thatcherism or you lament that the poetry of second place is moving but ultimately futile. Kinnock was after all one of the men who had clung to the very leftist dogma which had made Labour unelectable. His words were fine but they did not keep a single pit open, a single worker off the dole, or a single community from social collapse.

The temptation to maudlin piety dogs the Labour Party to this day and was on display in the fractured and fractious response to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. Welfare reform isn’t just about politics, it’s about people, but it’s also about politics and how people think about politics.

The Conservative legislation, which will see a further £12bn in cuts to the social safety net, faced its second reading in Parliament on Monday night. Labour offered a reasoned amendment designed to halt the Bill, which was handily defeated, then whipped its MPs to abstain on the vote. However, 48 Labour MPs defied the whip and voted against the Bill.

This represents a serious reversal for acting leader Harriet Harman and her efforts to force her colleagues to confront the causes of their defeat in May’s general election. Her strategy seems to have been that Labour avoid being painted as “the party of welfare” by voting against the Bill. Instead, it would attack the proposals at committee stage and roll out compelling case studies to put a human face on the cuts. By doing so, public and civic society opinion could be leveraged to force the government to drop the harshest parts of the legislation.

Hardly inspiring stuff but the Tories did win the election. They have a majority and unless enough of their MPs rebel and all the opposition parties agree, they will get what they want more often than not. That’s democracy for you.

Forty-eight MPs opted for the Kinnock approach. They, like many Labour supporters, are hurting at the thought of their party sitting on its hands while the poor come under fire. Labour ought to take a moral stand on the welfare bill. It wouldn’t change anything but itfeels like the right thing to do. Forcing the government to concede parts of its flagship legislation would mark a victory but it doesn’t feel good. This is virtue politics run amok.

By breaking ranks, the rebels have made it all the more difficult to weaken the Bill at committee stage. When there’s a choice between writing a “Labour civil war” story and writing a “social impact of public policy” story, lobby correspondents will always plump for a good internal rammy. Labour needs to understand that as well as right and wrong there is also winning and losing. Ethical principles are important but politics is not a theology seminar; the object is to beat your opponents, not get into Heaven before them.

This is a microcosm of the leadership election. Activists favour candidates who appeal to their moral vanity but shun the one contender who wants to take morality out of it. The Tories and those who voted for them are not wicked, Liz Kendall says. They simply think differently. Labour must win them over by a combination of changing their minds and meeting them half way.

The Conservatives will be watching all this with quiet glee, knowing better than to interrupt an opponent in the middle of a mistake. The SNP on the other hand are crowing. They voted against the Bill and would have done so even if it included sacks of gold and free pogo sticks for every child of woman born. Their aim is to drive a further wedge between Scotland and England and every vote is another opportunity to stoke resentment.

The Nationalists, social democrats at time of writing, demand to know what has happened to Labour’s moral compass. The SNP knows something about this. You don’t abstain on cuts. You redirect them to college places and council services used by the poor. The SNP takes both sides of the Kinnock dilemma, talking syrupy socialism at Westminster while governing from the low-tax, pro-business centre at Holyrood.

When Labour comes down from its high horse, it might care to explain why it keeps being outflanked on the left by a party that makes New Labour look like Bolivarian revolutionaries. Fair enough, the Nationalists have some strategic nous and have spent eight years toying with Scottish Labour like a kitten with a ball of string.

But this is a proper, grown-up, UK political party we’re talking about here. The Labour Party. The people who hounded John Major into his political grave, put the Tories out of commission for 13 years, and convinced Middle England to vote for massive wealth redistribution. How is it possible that this party finds itself outwitted by a parliamentary group that boasts as its elder statesmen Angus MacNeil and Pete Wishart?

Labour is pinned down on either side by the forces of nationalism. The SNP says only it has Scotland’s values at heart while the Tories seek to position themselves as the guardians of English fair play and common sense. Tilt north and left and Labour pushes away Middle England, edge south and centre and it alienates Scotland. This will only become more apparent as this Parliament progresses and with it will come the realisation that Labour’s position is even more perilous than many appreciate right now. The Labour Party is not simply fighting to get back into power, it is fighting for its life.

Nationalists are the deadliest enemy in politics. They are canny, slippery, and far-sighted. The ends not only justify the means, they are all that ultimately matter. Nationalists have no need of reason for they have a cause; unhelpful facts aren’t really facts at all because they frustrate the cause. “Power hunger tempered by self-deception” can be overcome but Labour has to get smart – and fast.

We said at the outset that welfare is about people and it is. George Osborne’s cuts to tax credits are designed not simply to reduce the welfare bill or encourage more people into work. They are a calculation that Labour can be baited into opposing welfare cuts and thus look spendthrift and out of step with public opinion. The working poor will pay the price of his gamesmanship.

Welfare reform is an important, even noble, task. The welfare state is a safety net, not an alternative lifestyle, and it should strive to give all those who are capable the dignity of work and self-sufficiency. But there is prudence and then there is mean-spirited cynicism and a Chancellor who came to office promising to “share the proceeds of growth” is now busily assigning misery for political gain.

I’m reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s riposte to Denis Healey during a spiky exchange in the Commons: “Some Chancellors are macroeconomic. Other Chancellors are fiscal. This one is just plain cheap.”

Originally published on STV News.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone at Tim Farron

There was a time when being gay ended your career as Liberal leader. Now it’s practically compulsory.

At least Tim Farron might be forgiven for thinking so, given the hostile media treatment he has received in the past few days.

Farron is a Liberal Democrat MP (ask your dad) and a practising Christian (ask your granddad) who has just been elected leader of his party. In a more compassionate country, this would be an occasion for sympathy, perhaps an encouraging pat on the arm. “There, there, mate. It could be worse. You could be leading the Scottish Labour Party.”

Instead, the news media are pursuing Farron like Roman lions with the scent of blood. The MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale was asked three times on Channel 4 News whether he deemed gay sex a sin. The question also dominated an interview with Sky News. I avoided Songs of Praise this weekend for fear he might be consulted for his views on Grindr.

The Times generously allowed: “There is no intrinsic incompatibility between fervent belief and political leadership.” This will have come as a relief to Messrs Gladstone (High Church Anglican), Asquith (Congregationalist), and Campbell-Bannerman (Church of Scotland).

We are all treading the steps of a deceptive dance. We in the media know Farron is an evangelical Christian and are aware of the orthodox teachings on homosexuality. Farron knows we know but knows he can’t answer; the label “bigot” stings and weeks and months of fresh questions – “What is the Lib Dem policy on wearing a linen/wool blend suit to a casino on the Sabbath?” – would be personally and politically damaging.

So we will go on pressing the issue and he will go on dodging it but because the balance of power lies with the media, the question will not go away. It could very well come to define his leadership. The new Lib Dem leader will enjoy only a fraction of the news coverage of his predecessor. Every minute spent talking about Leviticus is a minute where the party fails to carve out a fresh role for itself in British politics.

It is legitimate for journalists to ask Farron’s policy intentions on same-sex marriage, Section 28, or the age of consent and for that matter on abortion, Sunday trading, divorce, stem cell research, or religious instruction in schools. However, he has indicated no desire to introduce or repeal any legislation on religious grounds. In fact, he says he wants to extend the benefits of marriage to transgender people by closing the “spousal veto” loophole.

His views on homosexuality, the nature of love, and fidelity to God are therefore a private matter. (As leader of an eight-MP party, very private indeed.) As I followed the coverage over the weekend, I began to feel uneasy about the tone and object of much of it. There was more than a hint of bullying but there was something more than that. It was as if Farron was being forced to account for his religious faith. Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Anglican church?

This kind of gleeful inquisition, left unchallenged, risks establishing a precedent. If the treatment of Farron is allowed to stand, other people of faith who seek out public service could find their personal relationship to God under interrogation. Even the most aggressive atheist cannot relish the idea of resurrecting the Test Acts and setting them in reverse.

Are Muslim candidates for high office to be grilled on whether they believe Mohammed flew from Mecca to Jerusalem on a winged horse one night before ascending to the seven heavens and haggling with God over how many times per day Muslims must pray? The story of the Isra and Mi’raj will sound absurd to non-believers and individual Muslims will have their own interpretations. But adherence to all five pillars of one of the great Abrahamic faiths does not prevent a politician from reforming education or improving the health service.

What about Orthodox Jews? Should those who keep kosher be kept from power? We might demand that they offer constituency surgeries on Saturday mornings or renounce the Biblical claim to Eretz Yisrael. And while tolerance of Catholics in public life took many centuries to realise, wouldn’t it be a right laugh to watch a would-be prime minister squirm on Question Time when asked if he really reckoned he was eating flesh and blood at Mass.

The decline of organised religion in the West is either celebrated as a victory for rationalism or lamented as a symbol of moral decay. I have some sympathy with both views. The stranglehold of the Catholic Church, for instance, was by its end a spiritually and intellectually deadening force and one that gave licence at times to profoundly evil behaviour.

Nevertheless, the vacuum has not been filled by material wealth, political struggle, philosophy or New Age spirituality. Nor were all the inheritances malignant, and we have still to see whether Judeo-Christian concepts of the family, human dignity, and moral order survive the hollowing out of that tradition. Nietzsche’s madman may have been a lunatic singing in church but he may also have been right.

In a public discourse bent on identity, desire, and a soulless commerce between legal rights and civic responsibilities, religion now offers a space (ironically enough) to pursue Aristotle’s notion of The Good Life, characterised memorably by Leon Kass as “a binding up of heart and mind that both frees us from enslaving passions and frees usfor fine and beautiful deeds”.

If non-believers are not swayed by the intrinsic goodness of religious faith, they should at least recognise its utilitarian benefits. The influence of the social gospel lives on in mainline Protestant churches and even Pope Francis can sometimes sound like a liberation theology agitator. More and more there is less and less in mainstream Christianity that a secular progressive could disagree with.

Radio Four’s Thought for the Day has become the “And that’s why Jesus would have supported the living wage” slot, as earnest vicars strive to deputise the Saviour of Mankind into an apologia for the working tax credit. (At least the Church of Scotland – where a mere 37% of adherents say they believe in the divinity of Christ – has had the good grace to drop the pretence. Its Church and Society Council is the Salvation Army without all that weird Jesus stuff.)

And it is in these strains of Christian thinking and practice that critics of Tim Farron’s theology can be found. In conservative circles, such people are dismissed as “cafeteria Christians” who pick and choose the “nice” bits of scripture and gloss over the fire and brimstone. The reactionaries have a point, at least on logic. How anyone can read the Bible and be in any doubt about its proscription of homosexuality is beyond me. But an entire subset of progressive theologians have dedicated themselves to such a counter-textual reading and God bless them.

There are supermarket secularists too. Left-wingers often welcome helpful interventions from the clergy in social and economic affairs only to cry foul when they raise discomfiting questions about morality. How dare these cassocked cranks lecture us about sexual permissiveness or the spiritual vacuity of post-Christian Britain. They should stick to subjects they know about, like nuclear warheads and welfare reform.

Tim Farron’s politics are that of those trendy vicars on Thought for the Day. Anyone who cares about left-of-centre politics ought to make common cause with him rather than push him away. If Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton can be forgiven their late conversions to the cause of marriage equality, surely there is space to acknowledge that this is not an easy question. Even some of us with skin in the game have come to the consensus position after much soul-searching. It is hypocritical to expect Farron to change his mind over the course of a weekend.

Britain is in desperate need of a dose of liberalism. The Conservative government’s security impulses are right but they have yet to grasp that they cannot snoop, monitor, and cudgel us into safety. The SNP administration in Edinburgh is so authoritarian one almost longs for the laissez-faire days of Scottish Labour, when ministers only wanted to move kids off street corners not assign every one of them a state guardian. It remains to be seen whether the Liberal Democrats can survive in the long term but there is a national interest in maintaining a strong liberal voice in politics.

In the short term, Tim Farron is that voice. His unpopular views and the reaction to them pose the fundamental question of whether we want religious people in public life. Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. But if you drive away the faithful because of one or two moral disagreements, don’t be surprised if the next time you turn to the churches for ethical reinforcement against war or poverty or social injustice you find that no one answers your prayer.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Liberal Democrats by Creative Commons 2.0.

Why is Liz Kendall in Labour and not the Conservative Party?

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

We waited ten weeks for Mhairi Black’s maiden speech. It was worth it.

Given the mix of excitement and bemusement that greeted her election, there were always going to be high expectations for Mhairi Black’s maiden speech.

Since ousting Labour’s Douglas Alexander in May, she has become the youngest MP in 348 years and taken a first in politics from Glasgow University before reaching her 21st birthday. (I’m not sure of which achievement she is prouder.)

The clamour to hear her address the parliament she promised to “shake up” grew in recent weeks, with one newspaper urging “Speak up, Mhairi”.

The Paisley and Renfrewshire South MP is in good company in biding her time before introducing herself to the House of Commons. Members had to wait four months to hear Churchill and Thatcher, and just shy of five months for Gladstone.

In the end, it took Black ten weeks to have her say and the wait was worth every minute. She prosecuted her case against austerity – as economic theory and social cyclone – with confidence and just enough moral anger to be on the right side of pious.

The 20-year-old MP outlined the state of the constituency she inherited: “We’ve watched our town centre deteriorate. We’ve watched our communities decline. Our unemployment level is higher than that of the UK average. One in five children in my constituency go to bed hungry at night. Paisley job centre has the third-highest number of sanctions in the whole of Scotland.”

She recounted the story of a charity she volunteered with and a man who came there regularly for food. He was a person “battered by life” but instead of being helped, he was sanctioned for arriving 15 minutes late for an appointment. He had fainted from hunger on the bus to the job centre.

Seizing on a well-worn Conservative soundbite, she turned it around to devastating effect: “When the Chancellor spoke in his Budget about fixing the roof while the sun is shining, I would have to ask: On who is the sun shining?”

Piling in on George Osborne’s blueprint for repairing the economy, Black contrasted the way she is treated as an MP and the life that faces others her age.

She told the House: “The government quite rightly pays for me through taxpayers’ money to live in London whilst I serve my constituents. My housing is subsidised by the taxpayer. Now the Chancellor in his Budget said that it is not fair that families earning over £40,000 in London should have their rents paid for by other working people. But it is okay as long as you’re an MP?

“In this Budget, the Chancellor also abolished any housing benefit for anyone below the age of 21. So we are now in the ridiculous situation that because I’m an MP, not only am I the youngest but I am also the only 20-year-old in the UK that the Chancellor is prepared to help with housing.”

The remarks she directed at the Labour Party were her most acute and are where some will have shifted uneasily and others felt a flash of anger. She had not left her Labour background, it had left her. That once-great party had lost its way and to reacquaint it with its socialist traditions, Black quoted a Labour elder statesman.

With not a little presumption, she reminded those along the Opposition benches: “Tony Benn once said that in politics there are weathercocks and there are signposts. Weathercocks will spin in whatever direction the wind of public opinion may blow them, no matter what principle they have to compromise. And then there are signposts, which stand true and tall and principled. They point in a direction and say this is the way to a better society and it is my job to remind you why. Tony Benn was right when he said the only people worth remembering in politics were signposts.”

An audacious broadside for someone Black’s age and this made it all the more potent. Her speech will stand or fall for you on these words but you will have an opinion on them.

As well as argument, there was humour. Her colleagues’ debut contributions had made tortuous efforts to smuggle Robert Burns into the history of their constituencies. Black said she could trump them all: William Wallace was born in Elderslie, in Renfrewshire.

It was a sharply political address, which is unusual for a maiden speech, but as the Labour left-winger Michael Meacher commented she “just about got away with it”. Lefties were not alone in lapping it up. The DUP’s Jim Shannon – more Unionist than a bulldog in a Union Jack waistcoat eating a shepherd’s pie shaped like the Queen’s head – heaped praise on Black.

In fact, her oratory and passion reminded me of one of my favourite maiden speeches. Margo MacDonald, when she first stood up in the Commons in December 1973, pleaded for another west of Scotland community battered by economic and social change.

She told MPs: “I represent a constituency – not just a constituency but a community – within the city of Glasgow which has almost had its heart torn out. I say almost because, although Govan is the most desolate part of Glasgow, the people have still not given up. For years they have watched their community being physically demolished, but the community spirit that is referred to so often nowadays has been present in Govan for hundreds of years and still remains.”

With just as much fluency and spirit, Black portrayed for the House the impact of its decisions on her constituents and their communities. It would be jejune, to say nothing of unjust, to claim this as the first time the people of Paisley and Renfrewshire South had their voice heard in the Palace of Westminster. Black’s predecessor, for whom she had some kind and well-judged words, was a decent and conscientious man whose commitment to centre-left politics was never in doubt. All the same, Black spoke with a vividness that amplified her cause and captured the despair that grips parts of her home town.

The speech will not have been to everyone’s tastes.

Some might cavil about the picture she paints of an SNP surge driven by social democratic impulses rather than nationalism. The party’s election slogan, after all, did not read “Fairer for Scotland”. Where its manifesto sought to redistribute wealth, it was by adopting wholesale existing Labour Party policy. It is true that Labour fails to see Scotland’s new politics as joyous and progressive but so does half of Scotland.

Some might raise an eyebrow at the SNP digging another party over ideological constancy. The SNP that has over the years been left-wing and right-wing, gradualist and fundamentalist, for the Scottish Constitutional Convention and against the Scottish Constitutional Convention. The SNP, like Labour, is a political party, not holy orders – though we can’t even expect saintly conduct from the clergy anymore.

Some might mutter from the side of their mouths: Give it time, within or outwith the Union, and SNP politicians too will come to dread the chief whip’s call, instructing them to vote the party line on some awful bill or amendment. Tony Benn was a signpost and for much of his career it pointed to electoral oblivion for his party.

Those are fair critiques but they are for another day. Even if you can’t make peace with Black’s politics, you have to credit her extraordinary rhetorical style. No 20-year-old has any business speaking that spellbindingly in the world’s most vaunted parliament.

Mhairi Black was underestimated by her opponents, much of the media, and even some within the SNP. Her maiden speech suggests the doubters are due generous portions of humble pie. In the years to come, she will make mistakes, speak rashly then wish she’d bitten her tongue, hold her peace then kick herself for not speaking up. She will take chances that fall flat and miss opportunities that were meant for her. But she will always have that maiden speech and, if she lives up to the potential it hints at, a long and illustrious parliamentary career besides.

Decades from now, the doubters will lie to their grandchildren and tell them they believed in her all along.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Editor5807 by Creative Commons 3.0.

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.

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