I’m voting for Liz Kendall. This may seem odd, given that I consider myself soft left, and spent most of my first decade in the party railing against Tony Blair and his followers.
For many of the reasons they infuriated me then, they infuriate me now. And, as a result of their continued behavior, they are making it harder, not easier, for the party to sober up.
However, my plea to fellow members is to vote in this election based on which candidate’s prospectus is most likely to enable our party to change our fellow citizens’ lives for the better in government, not how you feel about certain MPs, columnists, or a certain ex-leader. We are not here to argue about which family members we like, but whether the family will survive at all.
When deciding who to vote for, we must look at what is handicapping Labour — both in the short term and the long term.
Too many in our party assume that the dangerous nature of the current Conservative leadership is their dogmatic neoliberal ideology. In fact, the opposite is true. They are so dangerous, because they are ideology free. Their calculation is exactly how much of the welfare state to retain, exactly how much interventionism to engage in, to maintain around 40 per cent of the vote — but go no further, so as to minimise the disturbance to the wealth piles of their donorbase.
Pensioner benefits are protected, while young people’s benefits are shut down. So much for the Burkean contract with future generations. In fact, they are all for government borrowing above market rates, if it means shoving money down the gullet of the rich and elderly. So much for fiscal prudence. The NHS will be flooded with money to keep middle England happy, but we will cut poor students off at the knees. Then there is the ‘silent welfare’ of help to buy and unregulated quantitative easing top prop up house prices. You may think this ‘selective welfarism’ is contradictory. It is not. Osborne can afford to service the Conservatives’ client groups, because he is destroying the safety net for everyone else. The Conservatives won the over-65s by 2 million votes at the election — which was their overall popular vote victory margin as well.
And so, the 40% — a coalition of those that have enough to not worry about the safety net, and those whose safety net has been strengthened — can have the cockles of their heart warmed by the austerity morality tale. Balance the books. Discipline the feckless. Rather like kahki-wearing premiers sending troops into battle, it’s easy to be a budget hawk, when you are not the one paying. That’s what Osborne has realised — no wonder austerity is popular.
That is the mountain we have to climb. Because the Tories will not cut adrift any of the 40% in their bid to retain power. And our railing against austerity will play straight into their hands, which is why a Corbyn leadership would be a disaster.
Please don’t believe there’s an army of non-voters waiting to vote for us if we turn left. I think we should try to get as many non-voters to vote as possible, but as an electoral strategy it’s as high risk as anything a junk bond seller would try to hustle. Academics have shown for more than 50 years that the less politically engaged a citizen is, the less likely they are to have defined political views, never mind something that can be called ‘left’.
And don’t believe there’s a pool of left wing votes ready to come back to us in Scotland. The British Social Attitudes Survey has shown Scotland to be no more left wing than England.
Why do the SNP claim to be social democratic? Very simply, the function of a regionalist party, with few tax-varying powers at home , is to demand more resources from the centre — which when you squint, with a healthy dose of anti-tory rhetoric, looks social democratic. Even the DUP can look ‘left’ in the right light.
We also face a very long term crisis as well. The politics of this country, is finally catching up with the economics. When the heavily unionised mines and steelworks shut in this country 30 years, Labour did not feel the effect straight away. People are not, despite what Randians may think, calculating robots who change their political allegiances overnight. But eventually history will catch up, and that is the reason why Labour is facing serious threats in its heartlands, whether the SNP in Scotland, or UKIP in the North of England.
Very simply, it will be very difficult for Labour to ever win a general election again. I’m not angry about the 2015 Summer Budget. I’m angry about the 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 budget, where things are likely to get worse and worse. I’m angry about the prospect of the 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023 and 2024 budget as well being just as damaging if we don’t get our act together.
So there are two things the party needs from a leader. First we need an acceptance of where we are, and where the British people are. They have agreed to the need for austerity, and they have agreed — and this pains me as a socialist — to distinguish between deserving and underserving poor. That is the backbone of the Tories’ selective welfarism.
Tony Blair managed to spring those trap once by talking about child poverty. Maybe we can do so again. But we have to be honest with where we are. The only candidate who sounds convincing about the need to balance the books, and reconcile Labour to a more judgemental welfare system, is Liz Kendall. Her emphasis on early life chances , pledging to roll back the inheritance tax cut to finance an equal start in life, offers the hope of emulating Blair’s similar political gymnastics.
But we also need a promise from the next Labour leader, that if we ever do get back into power, we lay the foundations to make this country safe for social democracy again. That means devolution. Because although the Tories can stitch together their serviced 40 per cent coalition nationally, they won’t be evenly distributed around the country. In some parts, they will fall well below 40 per cent — in the young cities and boom towns. And there, Labour can regroup, much as the Democrats did in the United States during the difficult Reagan-Bush years.
And we need a leader who will be dedicated to raising private sector union density. We in Labour think of the attacks on trade union power as an attack on working people. But the Conservatives are spinning it as a defence of working people. As Savid Javid argued in support of the Conservative’s Trade Union reforms:
“Trade unions have a constructive role to play in representing their members’ interests but our one-nation government will balance their rights with those of working people and business.”
And they can do so because union density in the private sector — where most people work — has fallen so low. I doubt we can recreate the once strong union culture that was once the bedrock of our support. But strong unions are not only a necessary part of the answer to the great question of our time of stagnant pay. They would enable us to communicate to many voters again.
Whatever you say about Kendall, her commitment to devolution is something that she has always made clear. And when she pledges to rebuild private sector unionism that is worth a hundred times more a similar promise from Ed Miliband — because I know she can deliver the right of the party in supporting that mission.
I do have my doubts about Kendall. I am diametrically opposed to her on public service reform for example. But by 2020 we will in all likelihood have entirely outsourced but free at the point of use education and health services, and any differences between people like me and her will be academic anyway. Party leaders are like tools for a job. And although I don’t think Kendall would have been the right tool for the job in 1997 or 2010, she will be the right one for 2020.
Her campaign, however, has been sunk. And it appears to have been sunk because people have confused the question: ‘What do you think of Liz Kendall? ‘ with ‘What do you think of the Blairites?’
Well, I’ll tell you want I think of them. I think many of them lack self-awareness, are hypocritical and have the kind of attitude towards the wider party membership which results in losing one election you should have won, and having your candidate come dead last in another.
It is unfair that many that described themselves as Blairite are branded as Tories. But a major reason is because Blair was happy to spin himself for years as ‘not really Labour’ — hence the Blairite hypocrisy and lack of self-awareness This was the essence of Blair’s triangulation — rather than boost your party, to be seen as separate and above from the party.
Blair’s speech to Labour and TUC conferences followed a particular pattern. Beforehand, the media would be briefed that Blair was about to beat up the party or the trade unions. The right-wing press would report dutifully. In the eventuality, the speech would be far more conciliatory, but with one confrontational line left in to justify the pre-coverage.
This trick was most famously pulled off in the “forces of conservativism” speech Blair gave in 1999, when conservativism was meant to apply to both the left and the right. It hurt many in the party for whom ‘conservative’ is the worst insult, the same sense of hurt many Blairites feel now.
John Monks, General secretary of the TUC during the early Blair years — and the kind of trade union leader that many party moderates now yearn for — put it like this:
“It reminded me of Morecambe and Wise: every time Eric Morecambe needed a laugh, he gave Ernie Wise a clout on both cheeks.
“Every time the prime minister wants praise from the Daily Mail, he gives the unions a clout.”
Meanwhile, the Labour government repeatedly downplayed its radical achievements. As has been noted on the Labour-right website, Labour Uncut, it barely mentioned tax credits. Sure Start only really started to gain a higher political profile under Gordon Brown’s premiership.
So if Tony Blair is deemed ‘not really Labour’, it is in large amount due to his diligent building up of that image. And it was successful in its own terms, Blair was viewed as a centre-right figure by most of the electorate, even before the Iraq war. Why would you not assume the perception was carried by the Labour faithful as well?
The lopsided nature of Blair’s own presentation meant that his legacy became dominated by those reforms that were controversial in the party, and not defined by those things which unite the party.
In fact, many Blairites now actively distance their patriarch from those achievements by putting them in a box called ‘Gordon Brown’ As John Rentoul wrote in response to Osborne’s budget:
“And [Osborne] finally acted on the rhetoric of the early Blair to impose a limit on the number of children eligible for public support.
“One of the strands of Blair’s pitch before 1997 was strong families and right imposing responsibilities, but it was overtaken in office by the setting of a target for reducing child poverty that could be met in the short run only by huge cash transfers.
“Blair never resolved that contradiction, complaining bitterly about Gordon Brown’s expensive tax credits without accepting that they were the only way to meet the targets he had set. Yesterday, Osborne resolved it in Blair’s favour over Brown.”
This ideological contempt for the party by Blairites has been matched by a personal contempt for the membership. Ed Miliband fell in love with the intellectual case for party renewal under Arnie Graf, but did not do enough about it.
The rot became serious under Blair, whose move to the centre — as much cultural as it was political, was premised on our core vote ‘having nowhere else to go’. Local parties were allowed to atrophy. It was reported that, at the beginning of the South Shields by-election to replace erstwhile Blair heir apparent David Miliband, the contact rate was 0.2%.
This contempt for the membership has spilled out into rhetoric of those outriders sanctioned and unsanctioned by the Kendall campaign. One prominent supporter, John Woodcock MP lashed out at Burnham and Cooper early in the campaign, calling them ‘continuity Miliband’. He forgot that just a few weeks previously, most of those whose votes he was asking for were not just continuity Miliband, but were willing to give up hours of their personal lives for that cause.
Chukka Umunna tried to reset the terms of the debate by referring to the party as a ‘petulant child’. Perhaps fewer Blairites would be insulted by the party if they attempted to treat it with respect.
And yet, and yet. However, cathartic it is for someone like me to reel off a rapsheet against various Blairites like that, all those considerations are irrelevant to the central questions of this leadership campaign.
Who is most likely to lend Labour the economic credibility it needs to win power again? The answer is Liz Kendall. She would also be best placed to take advantage of the political open goals Cameron and Osborne have given us, for example on low pay. Meanwhile, would any ideological differences that Liz Kendall have with mainstream Labour members matter that much by 2020, given the most likely path of this government? No.
Therefore, the only person I could give my number one vote for in the leadership contest, is Liz Kendall.
Daniel Elton writes in a personal capacity