My reaction to the disastrous result in May was unequivocal. ‘Dear Labour: please do whatever you have to do to win in 2020. I will swallow whatever compromises I must. Just win.’
That was, of course, simplistic. I don’t apologise for being desperate to see the back of the Tories, but I want to see the back of them for a purpose. I want Labour to reduce the inequality of income, wealth, health, housing, lifespan, education and enjoyment of life in Britain today – through redistribution, good public services and supporting people to act themselves. I also want a competitive, prosperous economy, with better jobs for people – well-paid, skilled and fulfilling. I want my government to face checks and balances, to respect the liberties of the citizen and to protect human rights – including (in fact, especially) refugee rights. And I want it to act on the environment, too.
Abroad, I believe in internationalism. I am a passionate pro-European; I support our membership of NATO; I believe in a world governed by rules. But I also suspect a multipolar world will probably be more insecure rather than less, and I want my government to have an answer to what we do if the US ever decides to walk away from our defence. I want a hard-headed approach to Russia and China, but I want to work with them on climate change.
I am a liberal-minded social democrat, in short. But we almost certainly can’t deliver everything I want at once. Resources are limited; a policy can deliver one aim and undermine another; the UK cannot make other governments do what it wants; and change almost always takes time (it’s hard enough to change an office tea-making rota, never mind the NHS). So if Labour disappoints me from time to time, it’s because you can no more govern a country than win an election without trade-offs. Those trade-offs are worth making.
It follows that I would prefer any of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall to Jeremy Corbyn. I’ve written about some disagreements I have with his pitch; there are many others. Quite aside from political realism, I have a fundamental problem with referring to members of Hamas as friends, tacitly equating the British Army with the IRA, arguing against allowing democracies to decide their future because Russia dislikes it and many other things besides.
Electorally, the evidence is overwhelming: a Jeremy-led Labour Party would have a headlong collision with the British public. We’re told that only 37% of voters voted Conservative, but 13% voted UKIP. An absolute majority of voters voted for the right. We gained an extra seven points from the Liberal Democrats this time, and still lost. Sections of the left have spent years adding Labour and Lib Dem votes together, pointing out that the total was over 50% and calling it a progressive majority. Well, the social democrats vote Labour now, and the theory has been tested to destruction. There is no automatic progressive majority: there never has been. We cannot win without persuading people who voted for the right.
The TUC’s survey data is clear: people who considered voting Labour, but didn’t in the end, were not generally looking for a more left-wing offering. Their biggest three factors were fears that Labour would spend too much and couldn’t be trusted on the economy, make it too easy for people to live on benefits and be bossed around by the SNP. (Non-voters are not a way around this: the evidence does not suggest they would turn out for radical socialism.) There is little evidence to suggest the public are likely to be swayed by the Corbynite big picture: when asked, respondents preferred ‘concrete plans for sensible changes’ to ‘a big vision for radical change’ by 74% to 15%. The research done for Jon Cruddas depicts an electorate which does want a fairer deal for most people, but wants to know the economy will be OK and the books balanced first.
Scotland is no better an argument for Corbynism. Social attitudes surveys are clear that there is either no skew to the left in actual Scottish attitudes, or only a very small one. The SNP knows this perfectly well and has governed accordingly. ‘Austerity’ was not the driving force behind the SNP surge: voters’ referendum decision was the defining divide, as shown by the British Election Study. If anything, the depth of Labour’s problems in Scotland means we have to reach even deeper into England to win next time. Anyway, even if Labour had held every Scottish seat in 2015, we would still have a Tory majority government.
The British are, mostly, a ‘safety first’ electorate. A very vocal minority would love Jeremy’s pitch – but as the Scottish referendum and the British general election have shown, loud minorities usually lose at the polls. A Corbyn pitch would scare off far more people than it would attract– and the people it would win over are disproportionately in safe Labour seats. With UKIP challenging in the north, the Liberal Democrats making a centre-left pitch under Tim Farron, the SNP dominant in Scotland and the Conservatives pitching to natural Labour voters, we would face disaster.
Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall are all moderate, pragmatic politicians; all of them have acknowledged some of the issues which Labour needs to face up to if it wants to win a general election. I prefer any of them to the self-destructive diversion of being led by Jeremy Corbyn, and gave all of them a preference.
Liz Kendall is the only candidate who has been telling the electoral hard truths, facing us with facts we’d rather not – but must – confront.
It is also clear what Labour would do under her leadership. It would make it clear from day one that it took sound finances seriously, identifying what it could and couldn’t pay for. It would prioritise: not lower tuition fees for the middle-classes, but support for the early years. It would be clearly pro-business and in favour of good jobs: and in return, it would support a living wage society and workers’ representation on boards. It would take devolution seriously, rather than simply advocating a larger central state. In short, it would aim to persuade people who could vote Labour, but (usually) voted Conservative or UKIP in 2015, that they can trust us on the economy and the public finances, while delivering social democratic values.
Liz is less experienced than the other two moderate candidates. Her media performances can be excellent, but they have varied. Her instincts are right: her implementation can be mixed. However, only she and Jeremy have been clear and consistent about where they would take the Labour Party.
Yvette Cooper is tough, experienced and competent. When she took Jeremy on, she did a brilliant job – the most forensic exposition of why Jeremy’s policies would be wrong for the country, combined with passion and policies which inspired me. Her focus on families and on childcare could, I believe, appeal to the country in 2015. Her focus on new jobs and technological change could be important. I also believe she would correct many of Ed’s mistakes: his relationship with business, in particular. There is a very powerful case for her as leader.
However, I would have liked more clarity on her strategy for Labour in this parliament. I understand she wants to broaden Labour’s support – no one will argue with that. But her preferred hard choices have, until very recently, been almost invisible. They remain less defined than Liz’s. She mounted a brilliant challenge to Corbynism – but very late: possibly too late. Finally, she remains ambiguous about fiscal policy: and whatever line we take, we need a clear one.
Above all, I want to maximise Labour’s chances of victory in 2020. The polling generally points to Andy Burnham as the most appealing candidate when a straight question is asked. He is probably the most immediately personable of the candidates. He’s right that many former Labour voters have lost their emotional connection with the Party. Like Liz, he takes a clearer position on Labour’s fiscal record than Ed.
But I worry about how he’s already put forward a number of unfunded major spending commitments. We lack fiscal credibility: there is little point in saying so, only to commit to billions of pounds’ worth of spending on the back of a commission to work out how to pay for it all. His tone on the EU worried me, though it’s improved recently: point-scoring against the Tories more than making the case for Europe could endanger the referendum result (and make Labour look less credible). His tone on immigration risks sounding like we’re promising things we can’t deliver. I think the British people voted against our message, not just our messenger, in 2015: it is not clear enough to me how Andy would change that message in 2020.
I gave my first preference to Liz, because I think her electoral analysis is right. The British people didn’t trust us to manage the economy or balance the books, and we have to acknowledge that loud and clear. Further, any government would be fiscally constrained right now, so we have to decide what matters most. Actually, that’s always true: ‘the language of priorities is the religion of socialism’. For instance, Liz is right not to prioritise cutting tuition fees and to put money into early years services: you make the most difference at the beginning of childhood, not the end. She has done more than any other candidate to marry social democratic values to a genuine engagement with why we lost, and that deserves support.
I gave my second preference to Yvette, in the full knowledge that she is much more likely to make the final round than Liz. She has not been as clear on strategy, and it took her a long time to take Jeremy on. But when she did, it was passionate, forensic and convincing. I think that many of the areas where she is radical – childcare, in particular – are areas where we can gather widespread support. She would correct many of our 2015 failings and put us in a stronger position in 2020.
I seriously considered putting Andy second on tactical grounds. His speech two weeks ago decided me against it. I believe we have to draw a clear line between moderate Labour and Corbynism: Liz and Yvette are much more likely to do so. But whatever the result, the centre and right of the Labour Party need to engage with many who are considering Jeremy this time: and I understand why Andy is trying to win them over. I gave him my third preference.
I want a credible Labour Party to make Britain more equal, open and tolerant, playing a full and constructive role in Europe and the world. We can only do that in government: so we have to face up to why people rejected us and address their fears. I hope the Labour Party will remember that when we make our choice.
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