Rationally, it shouldn’t matter that Liz Kendall has no kids. But it does.

by Kevin Meagher

Of all the reasons to support the admirable Yvette Cooper’s Labour leadership bid, her domestic arrangements seem one of the more trivial. Yet, this is apparently enough to seal the deal for Bishop Auckland MP, Helen Goodman.

She wrote an article the other day suggesting she was backing Cooper because “as a working mum, she understands the pressures on modern family life.” (Apparently this is the same Helen Goodman who wrote this passionate feminist critique of the Blue Labour traditional view of women’s roles, criticising its adherents for “harking back to a Janet and John 1950’s era”. But I digress…)

Her piece and its sentiment have been replayed as a coded attack on the childless Liz Kendall, who, ergo, cannot understand ‘the pressures on modern family life.’

Does it matter whether the next Labour leader has children or not? Most reasonable people would suggest not, but Labour politics is awash with identity politics. The party has all-women shortlists for selecting all its political representatives because it is said to matter that ‘our politics looks like the electorate’.

Indeed, not content with addressing the shortfall in female public representation, there are now growing calls for the introduction of BME shortlists for the same reason. (And not content with representation on the grounds of gender and race, Andy Burnham has even raised the issue of the Labour frontbench not having enough regional accents).

And as this leadership contest wends its way through a long, bored summer, there is a strong prospect that two men – Burnham and Tom Watson – will become leader and deputy leader in September, a prospect that bothers some, who see it as a step backwards in terms of gender balance.

Labour goes to enormous lengths to show it’s inclusive by physically encapsulating the country’s gender and racial composition. It would follow, therefore, then when selecting a leader, the party picks someone closest to the centre of gravity of the electorate.

Do prime ministers look, sound and act like ordinary people? Of course not, but symbolism is deemed to be important in every other selection the party makes. If it matters than only a third of MPs are women, or that the party’s leadership team is headed by two men, then surely it is not unreasonable to question whether a putative party leader understands the aspirations of those eponymous ‘hard working families’ if they don’t have any children?

But flip that argument around. if it doesn’t matter whether Liz Kendall has kids or not (and – rationally – it clearly doesn’t) then that’s bad news for all-women shortlists and positive discrimination gestures to show the party ‘looks’ like real Britain. The content of a candidate’s character is more important than their skin colour or whether they pee standing up or sat down.

There is a third argument though. Liz Kendall’s domestic circumstances shouldn’t matter…but we know, intuitively, that they do.

Throughout his leadership of the party, much of the media coverage of the way Ed Miliband looked and deported himself was highly personal and insulting, depicting him as weak and un-prime ministerial. This served to convince a not unsubstantial number of voters that that was the case.

It wasn’t fair and it certainly wasn’t a rounded account of him; but British politics is an unforgiving arena and Miliband’s sometimes goofy appearance and gaucheness dominated the public’s perceptions, shading out his decency and intelligence.

Is there a risk that Liz Kendall’s familial status will become a stick to beat her with? Unfair though it may be, the answer is undoubtedly, yes.

Of course, this does not rule her out of contention. She may possess countervailing strengths to transcend the reductive caricature of her. Many of our leading politicians have been childless, from Barbara Castle to Kenneth Clarke. But it is naïve to pretend that it isn’t an issue for the electorate. As well as being generally nosy, the public likes its politicians to have a hinterland. A family serves the purpose perfectly. It lets voters know that at least a handful of people can stand them.

So if Kendall’s circumstances are on the table, is the fact that Yvette Cooper is Mrs Ed Balls an issue? Or are Andy Burnham’s luxurious eyelashes a cause for concern? The answer has to be that, no, they too are irrational.

But when did rationalism have anything to do with politics?

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut

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16 Responses to “Rationally, it shouldn’t matter that Liz Kendall has no kids. But it does.”

  1. Frederick James says:

    I agree with this article apart from its repetition of the worn-out canard about Ed Miliband’s putative decency. From his chilling remark that opposing a windfarm in your back garden should be tantamount to drink-driving, to his unprincipled parliamentary stunt over Syria, to his threat to put Sharia blasphemy law on our statute book, this insecure, jejune, authoritarian, tragic figure has demonstrated his unfitness for office over and over again and it is to the everlasting credit of this site and the good sense of the electorate at large that he never got anywhere near the levers of power. It was a close shave.

  2. paul barker says:

    By 2020 the median age for voters will be around 55, ie half will be older, half younger. Few people over 55 live with children, of those below 55, perhaps half do. That makes “families” a minority, a big one but still a minority.

  3. swatantra says:

    Of course it doesn’t matter; Some couples would choose not to have kids, or it wasn’t meant to be for them. Ted Heath wasn’t even married. Some couples lived in sin and then married for political reasons like EdM. some adopted children like D Milliband.
    But there you go. But it does matter that a Secretary of Transport doesn’t know how to drive a car. Mrs Castle didn’t.

  4. John P Reid says:

    The only point I’d make,is that ,some politicians, had children for political convenience, Jeremy Thorpe JFK, but weren’t really family men, or some others Michael Portillo, and his wife never had kids,michael Foot didn’t,it did portray on him badly, but that was the least of our worries.

  5. John R says:

    Should a Secretary of Transport know how to –

    1. Drive a car.
    2. Ride a bike.
    3. Drive a train.
    4. Fly a plane.
    5. All of the above.

    What about a Supersonic Rocket Ship?

  6. David Walker says:

    If Liz Kendall is made leader, she will be married by next Summer and be a mother before the end of the following year (biologically or not).

    Sorry to be cynical, but you could bet your house on it.

    We appear to have regressed, since the age of Queen Elizabeth I.

  7. James McLeish says:

    If anyone in the Liz Kendall camp had any wits about them, they could point out that neither Angela Merkel nor Nicola Sturgeon have children. Doesn’t appear to have done them any harm politically.

  8. swatantra says:

    As some comedian once said: ‘Oh yes I know all about kids!!! I was one myself once’
    So there you go.

  9. Forlornehope says:

    Any question that Miliband was capable or running the country was thoroughly dished by Patrick Wintour’s account of the Labour campaign. It showed that Miliband and his team could not manage their way out of a paper bag and yet he had the hubris to put himself forward as a serious contender for the job of Prime Minister.

  10. Helen says:

    My support for what it is worth will be for Liz Kendal and Ben Bradshaw. I admire the way they both seem to address the reality of our capitalist society. And hope they will work with it accepting that it what it is. I think the majority of the population is too wealthy to need a socialist government. The early socialist Labour did their work so well. Even George Osborne is pretending to care for working people showing that it is aim that is relevant. I agree with the expert that say Labour needs to fight on the centre ground. Maybe identity politics is a tory conspiracy!

  11. MacGuffin says:

    No, it doesn’t matter that Kendall doesn’t have children, and I impressed by her team’s rapid response to the article. Team Kendall seems to know how to punch hard, which is what Labour needs (rather than Miliband’s flailing). I am liking Ms Kendall’s fire.

  12. Tafia says:

    Kendall will finish fourth, By a very very long way.

    Burnham will win thanks to second preference votes.
    Corbyn second
    Cooper not far behind in third
    Kendall a very very poor fourth.

  13. John P Reid says:

    The 2010 results were available to be seen via constituency, union affiliation, and supporters, it’ll be interesting my prediction wil be Cooper and Watson will get party members votes in Areas that have large labour majorities. Not sure what percentage of labour members will actually vote.
    Dagenham is odd in that it has the least amount of members for a constituency in London even compared to Tory strong holds, but that’s maybe due to the in fighting over who can get council seats,and union dominance running their gen election campaigns, at the expense,of not doing anything at the mayoral election,,so reading into how many people in a constituency vote for a certain leader,that have low membership, has too be taken with a pinch of salt, but if the ones that can appeal further than our core fan base in safe seats,then someone like Ben Brashaw, may get more votes from members than union supporters,and get more support in non traditional areas like Highgate and Hamstead,

    I think a Cooper, Bradshaw ticket, may look like a Brown /Harman one, with someone, who has studied economics, but doesn’t know how to run the country,And a deputy, who has an ability to hold the party together, with obviously the genders switched
    Whatever the result,it’ll be interesting on second preferences, how the deputy goes,and how many votes Watson gets from other unions apart from unite,
    If Cooper or Brunham win they’ll have 10 months to show they’re prepared to take tough decisions, and present policies, on transport, housing, defense, the judiciary, to show they’re serious, otherwise 2020 is already lost.

  14. Carol says:

    Re Swatantra’s post – It did not matter to me at the time that Mrs Castle did not drive a car. Volume of traffic was lower then and most women did not drive. It did matter to me that she put up a battle against drink driving. That mattered very much. I had witnessed death due to drunken driving.

  15. Mike Homfray says:

    Helen ; what real difference would there then be between voting Labour or voting Tory? Sounds like we may as well let the Tories get on with it.

    I’m not really interested in maintaining what exists now, and unless people become less selfish, then we will continue to have a more unequal society

    Kendall will come 4th, but if she did win, I wouldn;t vote Labour. No point.

  16. John P Reid says:

    Mike homfray you wouldn’t vote labour, but you assume that the majority of the public who would consider voting labour care,that you wouldn’t.

    I recall in 2012 the Tories had gone ahead in the polls Mike homfray reflected the public are giving the. Tories a poll lead, what’s wrong with them! Instead of asking what’s wrong with us,
    I can’t see how thinking it’s ok to run out of spending other peoples money is not selfish.
    I agree with Helen about Ben Bradshaw too

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