by Kevin Meagher
If I was Liz Kendall, cast as the uber-pragmatist in this Labour leadership contest and with a difficult message of “wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee” to sell to the party’s suspicious grassroots, I would look across the ideological divide at Jeremy Corbyn and emulate how he’s running his campaign.
Not by suddenly adopting a policy on Bolivian miners, but by observing the quiet and courteous manner with which he pitches unfettered socialism to a bruised party that wants to believe, but in its heart of hearts knows that some accommodations with the electorate are inevitable.
That’s the centre of gravity of the Labour membership. This is a party that wants to know its politics still means something and aren’t going to be endlessly triangulate away by, as it sees them, careerist politicians. However, purists aside, the party also knows that politics is the art of the possible. So members are there to be courted. To be convinced. To have their would-be leaders calmly explain how Labour moves forward from the mess it’s in, while remaining true to its heritage and values.
All of which is to observe that Liz Kendall’s campaign is so utterly tin-eared and so wide of the mark, that it seems to be taking place in a parallel universe. Whereas Corbyn is sweet reason, Kendall’s camp seems intent on adopting the traditional tactic of the hard left: simplistic homilising at 100 decibels.
There’s been an off-key, abrasive tone to her campaign from the start. It’s as though she’s running one of those boot camp sessions in a park. Her every utterance seems to say: “No pain, no gain!” to the sweaty, panting party members. There’s a level of frustration with Labour that she and her team has which they want to portray as the urgency with which they see the party’s predicament. Unfortunately, it comes across as impatience with Labour’s slow learners.
And, so, we had Kendall’s quixotic pledge at her campaign launch to increase defence spending and die in a ditch on free schools – a move almost guaranteed to irk the grassroots.
Then there was her campaign manager rising to the bait when one of her leadership rivals’ teams referred to Kendall and her supporters as the “New Labour Taliban”.
In turn, there’s her dismissal of the other candidates (alongside, in whatever capacity, she presumably still expects to serve?) as “Continuity Miliband”, (presumably a reference to the Continuity IRA, so doubly odd given she was so antsy about the Taliban analogy).
Then came the synthetic and entirely counter-productive row about whether or not Kendall was being attacked by one of Cooper’s supporters for not having a family. A spat that was inexplicably egged on by Kendall’s own camp, merely serving to draw attention to the issue.
Last week we had Kendall misconstruing Lord Falconer’s words of support for Andy Burnham in order to accuse him of rank sexism. Writing in The Times, Falconer remarked that: “Neither Yvette nor Liz can steer the Labour party through the challenging few years ahead when we need a leader who can reach out to all wings of our party and provide unity.”
So far, so anodyne, until Kendall herself weighed in: “For Charlie to say that women somehow aren’t tough enough to lead the Labour party is a gross insult and, as for standing up to Jeremy Corbyn, I’m the only candidate who has been saying he would be a disaster for our party and that I wouldn’t serve in his shadow cabinet, unlike the candidate Charlie is supporting.”
Eh? You wouldn’t have found Blair or Brown leaving their fingerprints all over such a personal and unreasoned attack on a colleague. Liz, it appears, enjoys doing her own dirty work. Big mistake.
And then there’s her choice of Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt as outriders. An odd move because neither man has much cache with ordinary party members. The problem for Hunt is that his general air of imperiousness betrays an ambitious man in a hurry, frustrated that the voters have interrupted his journey towards greatness. Where others might apply balm to a wounded party, he wants to give it “shock treatment”.
Meanwhile, Umunna’s audacity in admonishing the party for “behaving like a petulant child” since losing the election (from the same man who flounced off Sky News?) simply revealed a chronic lack of emotional intelligence. What are Labour members supposed to make of being so casually dismissed?
There is a perfectly sensible line of argument about Labour’s future, based around the twin poles of moderation and competence, which deserves to be heard and might even win the day. This possibility would have greater surety if articulated calmly and in a spirit of solidarity with the organisation that Kendall hopes to serve.
It would ask members to accept that Labour lost the election because people didn’t rate its competence or trust its instincts, especially on the economy, welfare and immigration. Voters were wary of the consequences of switching courses. So they didn’t.
Sure, the Murdoch press treated Ed abominably, but losing wasn’t down to them. The party had too little to say on the economy and not enough to offer those all-important target voters in swing marginals. Without getting them onside, we can’t help people further down the ladder.
The argument would be pitched more in sorrow than anger. It would point out there is no guarantee Labour will win next time either. Or, for that matter, even survive. It would avoid blaming Ed Miliband personally for the defeat, accepting that the public liked and supported lots of what he stood for, that he was a thoroughly decent man, but, that, overall, they didn’t trust him enough to lead the country.
And that’s what it’s ultimately all about: broadening the party’s appeal to earn the public’s trust to lead the country. It’s a pitch that would seek to reassure the party, promising that modernisation is a process the new leader and party can take together. Reform is not being done to the party from above, it is about everyone, in their heart of hearts, coming to the same conclusion that we need to change to win. And, if we don’t change, we won’t win, so, then, what is the point of the Labour party?
As a fig-leaf, the pitch would offer the thought that being in government presents everyday opportunities and the prospect of changing the terms of political trade. There is no sell-out in pitching for the centre ground of politics and then moving the centre ground, as George Osborne is said to be fond of noting. But everything comes back to winning that elusive election and it has to be everyone’s top priority.
The early Tony Blair did all this superbly. He sought, initially at least, to convince, to chivvy, using his charm and eloquence to great effect. Over the years, this hardened into his unfortunate habit of pontificating, framing every issue as a choice: You’re with me (therefore sensible) or against me (therefore mad). Alas, this latter style is the one his contemporary followers think they should adopt as their opening gambit.
There is a place for harsh words, but not as first resort and certainly not as an alternative to reasoned persuasion. It keeps coming across as though Liz Kendall’s campaign is picking fights with the party she (presumably?) hopes to lead. Perhaps, though, this is the point. All the available evidence indicates that she is heading for fourth place. Is she content to die a martyr’s death? True to the Faith unto the last?
But it’s not too late. Take a look at Corbyn. He isn’t going around slagging off his opponents. He’s calmly setting out the challenges and solutions as he sees them. Why doesn’t Liz do the same? Jeremy may be almost universally wrong, but judged by the scale of his appeal, it seems that good manners can get you a long way in Labour politics.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut