The country comes first- or ‘why I am backing Liz Kendall for Leader’
Churches in Nuneaton aren’t the first place to look for inspiration. And it seemed so tonight as the Labour leadership debate meandered around, failing to ignite. Most members of the public seemed to be slightly confused, almost as if they had ended up at the wrong wedding or, worse, funeral. And then with a few seconds to spare everything came to life.
In answer to a question about whether he would stand down if he failed to cut through to the electorate after three years as leader, Andy Burnham declared that he would, as for him ‘the party came first’. Reflexively, Liz Kendall shot back ‘the country comes first’. Instinct says a lot about a politician. It happened so quickly that the BBC thought Yvette Cooper said it as she had been summoned to respond to the question. But no, it was Kendall. (And the proof is here.)
And that’s it in a nutshell. That’s the patriotic way and the way for Labour to reconnect. For eight dismal years, Labour has been talking to itself and convincing itself it will be OK, it was right and the country would bend. At least Jeremy Corbyn, who was a distinctive voice tonight for the opposite reason to Kendall, is equally focused outside the Labour Party. For him, it’s about ideology; socialism raw and plain. The problem for Burnham and Cooper is that now they just sound like pale socialists. It is the voices of Kendall and Corbyn that cut through.
Cooper and Burnham are more of the same. Burnham is proud of the disastrous 2015 Labour manifesto. He’s made some concessions on Labour borrowing too much in 2007 but they are just minor and the country is not even listening anymore. In response to the country rejecting Labour because of perceived economic competence, Yvette Cooper has pledged to end child poverty and introduce universal free childcare. What a disastrous marquee policy to adopt given where Labour is on promising what it can’t deliver. But didn’t Tony Blair promise to half child poverty by 2020? Yes, though only after his economic credibility had been established. No-one doubts Labour wants to reduce poverty; they doubt the seriousness of its economic standpoint.
The last election was lost for Labour in the eighteen months from the 2010 election to the ‘predators and producers’ conference speech in 2011. It was almost impossible to come back from the spending pledges, the tax cuts, and the attacks on business. Cooper and Burnham are making many similar errors all over again – already.
Only Kendall is resisting the temptation to play the party tunes. And this is because she knows that the country needs a Labour Party capable of governing. It’s the easiest thing in the world to promise to eradicate all the world’s ills or to tell the party how great it is. It’s harder to be honest with the party as it tends to bite back. In failing to do so, the losers won’t be the candidates who don’t win or this faction or that faction. It will be those who rely on a country that is economically strong and socially just. The country comes first. It relies on Labour values but the party never comes first.
So in Kendall I sense a politician with the right instincts and the ability to lead the country. Her policy approach on the economy, on putting power in the hands of users of public services and in communities, and on securing the country through its international position is the right one. Her one spending commitment so far is to honour our international security obligations that we are committed to – as the Conservatives fail to do so. There are areas where I suspect we have a slightly different instincts; the welfare system is more brutal and severe than the current discourse admits (though Kendall rightly criticised the hopeless national work programme).
And sure, she’s not as slick and polished as Burnham or Cooper. That will come. And I suspect it will come quickly. What can’t be changed are the fundamentals. And on this Kendall is streets ahead of her opponents: her values, analysis and policy instincts are aligned in the right way. Together that will make Labour relevant again.
The next few weeks are now a race to convince the Labour Party that the country comes first. It’s not yet convinced but this is vital and bigger than the party. And if it remains introspective then Labour will lose again and the country will too. Last time round, the election was lost in the first eighteen months. This time it could be sooner. The country comes first.