The Labour Right Have Not Learned….Again

The key claim of Labour’s rightwards orbit is that the party does not listen to those beyond its confines. This claim is not altogether unfair – yet the conclusion that you should elect the most unprincipled centrist candidate possible to accommodate for this is somewhat more suspect. This is not the key point to be made however. What is key in regards to this claim is the simple fact that while the left may not be listening to the country beyond, the right is not even bothering to take stock of the party they actually inhabit.

Today on the BBC’s ‘Sunday Politics’ the current Progress backed hope Liz Kendall steered firmly into the approaching tidal wave, all but guaranteeing her wreckage on the shores of the often volatile Labour Party membership. A 45p tax rate, legislated for budget surpluses, confused tax credit messages that amount to cuts, and a remarkable ability to patronise the campaign’s most likeable figure Jeremy Corbyn were all included in today’s desperate attempt for perceived credibility.

On the same day John Rentoul, arch apologist for Labour’s more blue environs, wrote openly regarding the failures of Kendall’s campaign – a step which inevitably caused him great pain. He got time in to mention that he’s still right about Liz being the chosen one and how the rest of us are all lacking some imperceptible foresight that you only acquire by spending all of your time drinking flat whites around Fleet Street nonetheless.

As right of centre of Labour leadership candidates go Liz Kendall is in a league of her own when it comes to failing to judge the mood. She is certainly no Gaitskell, Castle, or Jenkins and I doubt were there even someone of the meagre calibre of David Miliband to oppose her she would have a look in. Let me enumerate her startling tactical failings since entering the race back in May:

1. Legislating for budget surpluses

This is a nonsensical policy that was met with consternation from every party except the Conservatives and referred to by the likes of Thomas Piketty and Ha-Joon Chang as ludicrous. That in and of itself should be a warning sign for any keen observer. Liz pushed ahead nonetheless. This announcement came at a crucial time when members and affiliate voters were learning who the candidates really were beyond vague ideas they may have held prior to the race. It is surely then no surprise that within this active period the narrative that Liz is a ‘Tory’ took hold. This is of course unfair in many ways, yet in essence it is simply useful short hand to say ‘she is not one of us’. Political parties are strange things, and like any group they have insiders and outsiders. Outsiders who do not have an incredible strength of personality and will do not become leaders. Liz has none of those qualities.

2. Negative Union rhetoric

One of Kendall’s early forays into the print media was to openly disparage union power within the party. Her team unwisely believed Jim Murphy’s open contestation with the likes of Len McCluskey would harken a new age of anti-union sentiment. It did not, largely because Murphy at that point was a discredited and exiting leader. In very simple terms – not many people cared to hear what he had to say. Liz of course was never going to rake in the union vote regardless, but even for those who share her concerns the idea that Labour would actively antagonise the unions is a step too far. Blair completely understood this – no other Progress backed candidate since has.

3. Attacking Corbyn (or anyone at all)

 It is obvious to anyone who is in and around the party membership on a regular basis that the majority of committed members are somewhere situated within the centre left, with a sizeable minority positioned to the far left, and a much smaller but often more savvy and well connected collective positioned on the right. As a result you are tasked with keeping all of these elements at best fervently positive about you, at worst allowing some to be generally neutral about you. The Kendall campaign has successively mobilised the right…and absolutely no one else. Their response to this has been to attack the left candidate Jeremy Corbyn in quite unflattering terms and hope this will somehow scare people into voting for Liz. Whomever thought of that must have failed to notice there are two other candidates in Burnham (centre-left) and Cooper (firm centre) who would be much more acceptable destinations for such voters. Furthermore as we all have probably heard a million times before, negative campaigns do not win.

4. Failure to understand the momentum of the CLP vote

The CLP vote should not be taken as any great signifier of the final result, but it does correlate to some extent with the placement of first preferences. On that basis the first candidate to be eliminated will almost certainly be Liz Kendall. I can only assume Liz’s team did not take this facet seriously or her campaign truly has been as poorly deployed as I suspect and she simply is not connecting with party activists outside suburban London.

5. Being seen to be about nothing other than winning and confusing this with Blairism

Blairism is a strange term which could just mean pragmatic populism tinged with economic liberalism, or it can also imply a sort of southern English centred ultra Gaitskellite antagonism that seeks to boldly replace the Tories as Britain’s natural party of government – regardless of where that takes you on the spectrum. In the end it matters little, because Liz Kendall is not a Blairite, if by that we mean someone in the image of Blair. Tony Blair more than understood the necessity of taking his party with him come the general election. His positioning to gain the leadership, or at least be seen as the natural successor to John Smith rather than Gordon Brown, was altogether not dissimilar to where Yvette Cooper is placing herself today. Albeit with a much less formidable Tory government than that which is currently present. Yet when we try to rationalise the ill fitting approach of Kendall’s campaign it is not to Blair we should look, but to the once touted wunderkind of New Labour – David Miliband.

The 2010 leadership election should have been a serious wake up call for the Progress aligned factions in the party, in just the same way the 2015 general election should have served as a jolt for those aligned to the more traditional left. David Miliband stood as by far the most popular candidate with the country, and his name recognition was only challenged by Ed Balls within the party itself. He was by no overestimation the runaway favourite – and then his brother entered the race. Ed Miliband whether you adore or deplore him understands strategy. David Miliband does not. Famously David Miliband was dubbed a ‘serial bottler’ by Gordon Brown’s chief spin doctor Damian McBride, and was known to have attempted short lived coups on as many as three occasions, often with the help of John Reid. This does not a unifying leader make, and once things started getting heated between he and Ed in 2010 David’s backers were all but silent. That loss may have been under a different voting system but under certain scenarios the One Member One Vote system could well hinder the right even further. To combat this Kendall’s team should have placated the party’s centre left much more openly rather than seeking to cast them as dinosaurs.

Kendall has been unfortunate in some ways. It has rarely been spoken of but the fact is Kendall wanted to run a campaign based on the success of the London campaign in 2015. She would do so as the only southern MP in the race (at least in terms of personal background) and use the swiftly departed Umunna and other prominent supporters in the capital to run a vibrant and forward looking campaign. Then Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North entered the race. Suddenly Kendall wasn’t the interesting candidate fighting against the (unfairly referred to) ‘continuity candidates’ in the North, she was the right wing pole on a clearly left leaning field. The energy of Corbyn’s campaign in the capital and many of Britain’s biggest cities quashed any hope of a cosmopolitan insurgence for Kendall and left Burnham and Cooper to battle for the North, Wales, Scotland, and the South West. Northern Ireland was decisively taken by Burnham early on, however the number of members there is negligible. It might still be the case that the candidate of the two supposed front runners (though Corbyn is now seriously challenging this outcome) who does better with members in and around the capital will take the prize but it is quite clear that Kendall just does not have the required support across the country and will likely finish no better than 3rd in September.

The summation of all of this can easily be understood in a simple idea that someone tweeted to me today :

‘Kendall has not applied her key campaign message, that you need to be in power to change things, to her own campaign’

That’s it, right there. The leadership contest is the first step on the road to winning back power. If you are incapable of seeing the need to appeal to members and supporters then how likely is it that you will be able to adapt to the concerns of the electorate? The centre right can win a leadership contest, but it seems the one they should have won yet failed to do so in 2010, has completely knocked them for six and half a decade later they simply have not recovered.

Unless a new leadership contest comes in the next 5 years Liz Kendall may forever be the candidate who just didn’t get it, and for those who share my politics at least that is a very welcome result.