Voting records, Labour leaderships and anti-politics

Owen Smith is standing for the Labour leadership on a platform well to the left of what anyone would have deemed possible in 2015. From standing firm against Tory spending plans, through pledging a series of specific tax rises, to investing in a British New Deal, to strengthening workers’ rights, it is very obvious which side of the fence he’s on. There’s no Blairite triangulation here – simply a clear, left-wing, domestically-focused programme.

As a result, attacks on Owen have had less to do with his policies and more to do with his background. The attacks on his career before Parliament are deeply unfair and have been rebutted elsewhere. However far to the left we move, we can’t just dismiss anyone who has worked in the private sector as inherently suspect. But many comments about his record in Parliament deserve an answer, too. They aren’t just unfair and misleading. They’re part of a toxic kind of politics, which any true idealist should shun.

Owen in Parliament (or being attacked for being an MP)

The (in)famous vote on the Welfare Bill in July has been covered over and over again, and plenty of people have explained what it meant in detail. Briefly: Labour tabled a ‘reasoned amendment’, which would have killed the Bill while giving specific reasons. It then abstained on the Second Reading because some parts of the Bill (like an increase in apprenticeships) were good. It tried to change the Bill in Committee, and then voted against it at Third Reading. The Tories have a majority, so it would have passed anyway. I completely agree we made the wrong call, and so does Owen Smith: we should have made our opposition clear. But Labour MPs weren’t just letting the welfare cuts through. It was simply trying to change it first before trying to vote it down, good bits and bad alike.

Owen has also come under fire for not voting on the Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill in October 2010. (For context: he entered Parliament for the first time in May 2010.) This was a Private Member’s Bill which aimed to ensure that minor procedural errors in strike ballot notices didn’t invalidate the ballot. Employers have been exploiting the law aggressively in recent years, so I have plenty of sympathy with the idea (though I might argue with bits of the detail). It’s good that a large number of MPs turned up to vote for it. But the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government had a majority of 73 and was never going to give it Government time. As a result, it was never going to actually become law. We don’t know if Owen had a constituency commitment; we don’t know what else he might have had to do at the time. We do know this wasn’t a do-or-die vote. Frankly, we know that if he had an important constituency meeting, he’d have been better employed there.

Owen’s been attacked for ‘going fishing with Tory MPs’. Yes, Owen went on a trip which involved fishing one summer. He’s Vice Chair of the All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Angling, raising awareness of issues relating to the sport. You might think that’s not very important, but millions of voters go fishing, and there are hundreds of APPGs covering almost everything. They all include both Labour and Tory MPs: Jeremy Corbyn used to chair the APPG on Mexico, with three Tory MPs and Ian Paisley’s son as officers. It’s hardly surprising if, as part of a group looking at angling, the Angling Trust might have been keen for these MPs to, well, experience angling. And having looked at Owen’s expense records, I can find no evidence he claimed any expenses for the trip.

And on expenses: one of the silliest attacks on Owen has been for claiming more expenses than Corbyn. Owen represents Pontypridd in the Welsh Valleys; Corbyn’s seat is a Tube journey from Parliament. Of course his expenses are higher. He has to travel further and he has to have two bases (if you don’t believe me, remember the Commons regularly finishes at 10.30pm or 7.30pm). If we compare a Welsh MP’s expenses unfavourably with those of the MP for Islington North, we may as well just say London MPs are preferred as leaders. In a country where metropolitan elites are forever mocked, I shouldn’t have to explain why that would be profoundly damaging.

Why it matters

This is dishonest, misleading stuff, easily explained for any who honestly want an answer. More importantly, it’s toxic. It takes the diary trade-offs, policy compromises and parliamentary tactics which being an MP will always involve and uses them to ‘prove’ an MP dishonest, on the take or lazy. Taken to its logical conclusion, it makes an effective legislature impossible. It’s a left-wing version of UKIP.

How do different sports’ concerns, or issues from a country far away, or information about British industries make their way to Parliament? Partly from MPs’ own backgrounds, but mainly from talking to people outside Parliament with an interest or expertise. Select Committees and APPGs are part of that process. You know how oppositions get some concessions from governments in Parliament? They work with their opposite numbers in the Lords. They put forward amendments and they may word them to get some government MPs or peers to back it. They may meet ministers to talk about what concessions they can get if the Lords lets a Bill through. And sometimes they work constructively and consensually on legislation on which no one disagrees much.

If any attempt to compromise, or negotiate, or secure concessions just proves perfidy, we have two choices. Parliament could just grind to a halt. Alternatively, the Government can ram all legislation through with no meaningful scrutiny, no chance to improve it and no opportunity for the Opposition to win concessions. Do you want either of those? Does any sensible person? Do you want a closed Parliament where MPs do nothing but casework or sitting in the chamber?

This sort of campaigning takes the basic work of MPs and actively undermines it. Worse, it depends and builds on ignorance of how Parliament works, when activists should be trying to do exactly the opposite. It’s not just attacks on Owen Smith, and it’s not just Corbynites. Those memes of an empty Commons talking about a debate on [popular/important issue] and a full one talking about [expenses/unpopular issue] – never mind that the first was a snapshot in the middle of a long debate and the second was actually Prime Minister’s Questions? They’re part of the same culture. So is the mindless counting up of how many parliamentary questions (PQs) an MP asked. Never mind their relevance or that a minister doesn’t ask PQs or an MP might chair a Select Committee and do far more for scrutiny that way. Just assume they’re lazy instead.

It’s hardly surprising democracy is held in low esteem if all the key participants and the activists mock it just as much, and with as broad a brush, as any cynical non-voter. Activists presumably believe in the power of politics, and campaigning, to effect change. If so, they should fight within Parliament, and battle for parliamentarians’ support, to their hearts’ content. But don’t feed into a culture which treats all MPs as lazy, all leaders as liars and all deals as betrayals. If you paint politics as a cesspit, don’t be surprised if the public agrees with you. And don’t be surprised if the new politics ends up nastier and narrower than the old.

A letter to the Labour Left

Dear Comrades

Labour’s more centrist wing talks a lot about winning elections. Given our dismal result last September, I admit we should show some humility on that score.

In summer 2015, members and supporters wanted an Opposition which opposed. They wanted someone to be unapologetically anti-austerity; to speak up for left-wing values without blushing; to refuse to triangulate or fudge in the face of a right-wing Conservative Government. Most concluded no-one would do that except for Jeremy Corbyn; they felt like they were being asked to choose to give up everything they believed in if they voted for anyone else.

People like me failed to grasp that, and we just ended up lecturing the membership. We told everyone else to meet the voters on their ground and take their concerns seriously, and we completely failed to take our own advice. We failed with the best of intentions, we failed because we wanted a Labour Government, but still we failed. We have to learn from that.

10 months on, I can understand the anger now that Jeremy is facing a leadership challenge. He won by a landslide: I accept that. He won a mandate to move the debate in Labour to the left. He has done that, but I can see why many feel cheated.

But please don’t think that Labour moderates are the main threat to the Labour Left. We were trounced in 2015: Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper won 21.5% between them. Corbyn supporters cite the old saw that Tony Blair was Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievement to illustrate the problems with Blairism. On that logic, Owen Smith is Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest achievement.

Owen is standing as an unabashed socialist, backed by all of Labour’s most centrist MPs. Labour members are not being offered insipid triangulation or Andy Burnham Mark II: Owen is putting forward an unambiguous, democratic socialist programme. He’ll also put flesh on the programme’s bones, which Jeremy never managed to do.

As Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Owen has led Labour’s opposition to the Tories’ welfare cuts. In the early days of his campaign, he’s set out 20 key policies to end austerity and make the wealthy pay their share. Bringing back the 50p rate; higher capital gains tax; a new wealth tax; raising corporation tax; £200 billion invested in a British New Deal: it is crystal clear which side of the fence he’s on. These are specific and costed, and they make a sharp contrast with 10 months in which, after last summer’s promises, practically no party policy emerged at all.

When Owen made his 20 pledges, Jeremy had set out one policy from our 2015 manifesto, one policy based on Owen’s pledge on investment, and one unworkable pledge on pharmaceuticals. Owen has now released a major programme for workers’ rights, too. We have heard a little more since then, but even then the difference stands out: one candidate translates the ideals into concrete policies; the other, unless pushed, does not. Now Labour has been jolted to the left, it needs to fight to make a leftward shift credible: Owen is the better candidate to do so.

Crucially, Owen will turn his fire on domestic policy. If you want to challenge the political consensus head-on, you need a clear target and a steady aim – not a scatter-gun assault on all positions at once. If we’re going to campaign from the Labour Left, we need a clear, overwhelming theme: Conservative cuts are not compulsory; working people shouldn’t pay for the hubris of a lucky few; the interests of those lucky few have railroaded everyone else’s for far too long. Owen will do that. If you wanted a clear, full-throated left-wing party, focused on taking the fight to the Tories: now you can vote for one.

Yes, Owen will stay nearer to the centre than Jeremy in some areas. In particular, Owen will not refuse to sing the national anthem, he will avoid foreign policy controversies (though he voted against military action in Syria), he will be a multilateralist on Trident and he will want to speak to people’s sense of national identity. I understand that these last two are a major compromise for many.

But once these are out of the way, Labour MPs and activists on all sides will rally round a radical domestic programme for government. Arguing about Trident, the Falklands or the IRA is a distraction. These issues alienate people who could otherwise vote Labour. Labour moderates like me will refuse to pretend we can accept them. The Tories will make hay with them. And all the while, the hope of an unequivocally left-wing government drifts further away.

I won’t lie to you: I would normally argue for a more moderate programme to take to the country. But in 2016, the Labour Left has won that battle within the Party, hands down. The biggest threat to that victory is not bedraggled Blairites. It’s crushing, repeated electoral defeat, with all the demoralisation that entails. Defeat will, if you let it, drag the Labour Party away from what you want. Jeremy Corbyn has done what members wanted him to do: to build on that, a new leader will have to take the message to the country, not just the party.

If Owen Smith wins the leadership contest, please don’t think Labour moderates won’t want to make it work. We will throw ourselves into selling him, and Labour, to the country, as we always do. If Labour wins on a manifesto substantially to the left of Ed Miliband, we will be delighted. We also want to tackle inequality – as slowly as we must, yes, but as fast as we can too.

There are two candidates from the Labour Left in this election. One has shown he cannot speak to the country as a whole; the other is champing at the bit to try. The second stands the best chance of showing what a more radical Labour can do.

Yours fraternally
A Labour moderate

If you want to help Owen’s campaign, you can sign up to volunteer.

Why Jeremy Corbyn cannot lead

Jeremy Corbyn was elected in September 2015 with a decisive mandate. Nonetheless, I am convinced that Labour needs a new leader and that it faces disaster if it does not have one. Those of us who seek to overturn that mandate must make our case now.

In doing so, I want to address the electoral damage to Labour, but that is not my main focus here. Corbyn cannot win: but nor could he devise a workable platform for government, even if he did. Nor is such a platform his priority. As long as he leads, Labour cannot do its job as a serious opposition and an alternative government.

Campaigning efforts

To take electoral efforts first, however: it is evident that Corbyn’s Labour is far from forming a government. He is the first Opposition leader ever to lose seats in local elections in his first year in charge. The Opposition he leads is the first to lose seats in local elections since 1985. The average of polls has never once put Labour ahead of the Tories since Corbyn’s election. This all points to a defeat much worse than in 2015.

Policy and positions aside, Labour’s campaign under Corbyn was unfocused and poor. As a slogan, ‘Standing up, not standing by’ appealed only to the already-converted, who took Tory sins as articles of faith. It said nothing to anyone who wasn’t already convinced – indeed, it had no policy content at all. Our whole local election campaign focused on issues which councils couldn’t affect. Labour won in London – where Sadiq Khan spoke to the majority of Londoners, focused on their priorities and kept Corbyn off the leaflets.

But those problems pale in comparison to our EU referendum effort. We don’t know whether a sharper Labour effort would definitely have changed the outcome. But our leader skipped the launch of Labour In for Britain to attend a CND rally. Even in May, less than half of Labour voters knew their own party’s policy. Our leader constantly referred to the Party line when asked about his own views. He took a week’s holiday three weeks before polling day. I co-ordinated campaign efforts locally and knew I couldn’t go on holiday: clearly Corbyn took a different view. We now know the Leader’s Office consistently weakened pro-European speeches throughout the campaign. It is in genuine doubt how he actually voted himself.

On its own, Corbyn’s failure to campaign properly in the EU referendum is damning. His current position entails responsibility far beyond his own party. This was a crucial vote. It is hard to think of a Leader of the Opposition who has helped inflict more damage on his country.

Competence: credible policy

This isn’t just about whether people like Labour’s policies or how Corbyn campaigns. It is also about whether he can put any coherent platform together or show any kind of judgment on policy. I never thought he could, and events since September have given me no reason to change my mind.

Take the Tories’ Fiscal Charter, with its commitment to deliver an overall Budget surplus. Members and supporters voted for Corbyn to deliver a meaningful ‘anti-austerity’ policy. They got a Shadow Chancellor who first said he’d vote for the Tories’ fiscal charter as ‘little more than political game playing’, then decided he’d better vote against, and then produced a set of fiscal rules pretty similar to Ed Balls’. There’s a good case for a policy of balancing the current budget while borrowing to invest. But trashing that policy, seesawing from one extreme to another and then returning full circle – to general confusion – is no way to advocate it. Instead, McDonnell made Labour (defeated in 2015, to a large extent due to a lack of fiscal credibility) look like a party with no serious understanding of what it even wants, never mind how to achieve it.

Corbyn’s lack of judgment extends to foreign affairs. Reasonable people took different views on Syria, and there were plenty of good arguments against intervention in December. But reasonable disagreement differs from total failure to grasp the nature of the problem. Corbyn’s call for back channels to talk to Daesh fell into the latter category. Daesh is committed to an Islamic caliphate as a prelude to waging jihad on a global basis: striking a deal is literal anathema to its leaders. Syria and Iraq’s territory are not the West’s to negotiate over, and in any case we have nothing we could ever offer Daesh. Millenarian, theocratic totalitarianism cannot be appeased – as anyone with even a basic understanding should be able to grasp.

Corbyn’s positioning on Brexit since the EU referendum has been damningly inept. The morning after the referendum, he demanded the immediate triggering of Article 50, starting the two-year countdown to leaving. We had just fought a whole campaign, one where he had (notionally) been a key campaigner, in which Remain had emphasised the complexity of Brexit, the lack of any plan and the difficult trade-offs if Britain voted Leave. Anyone with even a passing interest in the debate should have known that to start the process immediately, with no permanent Prime Minister, no set of UK negotiating priorities and no discussion with devolved administrations, MPs and others would have been as disastrous as it was farcical.

Our new Brexit Secretary’s stated policy on negotiating with EU partners is either hubris or bluff; a stronger Labour Party could fight to ensure Remain voters’ interests are taken into account by a Government which currently risks sleepwalking into a hard Brexit. Having argued for a disastrous, precipitate negotiation, we have now spent a month supporting single market access while accepting an end to free movement, with no understanding of the contradiction. It is sadly typical that we only got any more clarity once Corbyn faced a leadership challenge and had to explain it to members rather than voters.

We are currently proposing to put Jeremy Corbyn to the country as our candidate for Prime Minister, making crucial decisions at short notice every day. Faced with such decisions as Leader of the Opposition, he has not shown the slightest ability to handle them. And for all his vaunted principles, he shows no interest in how to put them into practice – even if he won an election.

Competence: Parliament, party and country

MPs and peers have said a great deal about Corbyn’s performance as a leader in Parliament. He appointed, sacked and reappointed a Shadow Arts Minister without consulting or informing her while she was undergoing treatment for breast cancer; his Shadow Health Secretary had to make camp outside his office to get a decision on NHS policy; his Shadow Transport Secretary found herself undermined on key issues where she had reached an agreement with him in person. He may have claimed credit for Lords victories over tax credits, trade unions and housing, but Labour’s leader in the Lords points out she didn’t even have a conversation with him about those votes: peers were getting on with the job themselves. It is hardly surprising that his MPs have no confidence in his ability to lead.

This partly points to simple incompetence – a theme running throughout Corbyn’s leadership. It also points to a fundamental lack of interest in Parliament itself and the business of Parliament – in government or in opposition. When explaining his refusal to step aside, it was not the country or the voters to whom Corbyn said he felt responsibility; it was the members. Whenever challenged about electoral success, he would cite a growing membership. MPs with concerns are instructed to respect the membership. And so on.

Of course, Labour members and activists are vital. But they cannot be the sole – or even, if I am honest, the primary – focus of accountability for Labour MPs. It’s not just that you can’t be elected without appealing to voters at large: it is a point of principle. We live in a parliamentary democracy. The route from an individual citizen to Number 10 is stewarded by their local MP. It is fundamentally wrong to subordinate that link to a small, though dedicated, subset of activists. MPs should of course listen to their members: but citizens must come first.

The poor management of MPs, the lack of interest in parliamentary change and the refusal to prioritise winning elections point to a fundamental failure to understand that priority – and a rejection of the purpose of the Labour Party. As set out in Clause One of our Constitution, that purpose is to elect Labour representatives to Parliament. We don’t exist for our own benefit: we exist to build a better country.


Like Corbyn, I want a more equal Britain. I want poverty reduced; I want investment in public services; I want the rich to pay a larger share. But I would be lying if I pretended not to have fundamental differences with him, too.

Above all, I reject his anti-Western worldview. It is possible to do this while opposing some recent interventions in the Middle East. I marched against the 2003 Iraq war myself, more than once. But I believe interest and principle point to a UK anchored in Europe and in the Atlantic world. I do not see the European Union as a bosses’ club to be regarded with suspicion: I see it, for all its faults, as the greatest attempt to govern the relations between European states by law rather than power ever seen. To me, the United States is not a country to be held at arm’s length – though of course we can disagree with its leaders – but a liberal democracy and a friend, far more benign than any other plausible world hegemon and essential to our security. I do not share Corbyn’s hostility to Israel: it has done some terrible things, and it should change its policies for its own sake as well as the Palestinians’, but it remains a broadly free, open society in the Middle East and a guarantor to Jews everywhere that, after millennia of persecution, there will always be somewhere to offer refuge.

Corbyn’s worldview has led to some terrible associations and decisions. Rob Francis has said more or less everything that needs to be said about the first: I’ll focus on the second. It leads him, for instance, to want to leave NATO. In fairness, he hasn’t said anything much about NATO since becoming leader (though he did appoint Ken Livingstone to co-chair a defence review, who did), but we have no reason to believe his views have changed. Corbyn refers to a policy based on international law and peace: no one denies these are good things, but Britain has to have an ‘if all else fails’ policy in a supreme national crisis. At present, that policy is based on the NATO alliance. Corbyn wishes to get rid of our current policy, with no alternative in mind. Even if he does compromise on NATO, how are our allies meant to have any confidence in him? Britain already looks like it is considering withdrawing from the world: how would this help?

The assumption that we are always wrong, that the West is always to blame and that the answer must always be for Britain to give ground puts Corbyn at odds with the British people on some of the most fundamental issues of all. Arguing the UK should find an accommodation with Argentina over the Falklands – never mind the views of the people who live there – was a case in point. The public may not think much about the Falklands, but the idea that British people living on British territory should be defended from invasion and have their rights protected by Britain is a red line for them. And they are quite right. A man who seems to place his own country in the wrong in every circumstance is not a man who will ever enter 10 Downing Street.

Finally, I just can’t ignore the minimising, tolerating and denying of anti-Semitism under Corbyn. I’m sorry: I can’t stomach his record. Associating with people any decent politician should shun, failing to take a single step to address anti-Semitic incidents unless forced, refusing to condemn anti-Semitism without qualification: this is not how the leader of a mainstream party should be. If Labour cannot recognise one of history’s most vicious, most insidious prejudices, what are we for? There are few things more shaming than one of our Jewish MPs, attending the launch of a report into anti-Semitism in Labour, finding herself accused of ‘colluding with the media’ – a classic anti-Semitic trope. Worse, she saw her Party leader do nothing and then found he apologised to the man who abused her.


Corbyn’s record exposes the essential unseriousness of Corbynism. Our current leadership has no interest in working out how to sell ‘anti-austerity’ or even what it actually looks like. If we keep a leader the British people will never elect, who we know could never be Prime Minister even if he won, who is incapable of responding to the problems the country faces and who doesn’t even see any of this as his priority, we fail in our basic purpose. Worse, we leave everyone in this country who needs a Labour Government to the mercy of the Conservatives.

Electing Owen Smith as Labour leader won’t fix all the deep problems Labour faces. How to keep enough middle-class liberals and traditional working-class voters in the same tent, make Britain more equal in economic circumstances far more difficult than those of the late 1990s, repair our shattered place in the world, appeal to older voters and speak to all the nations of the UK: all of these problems will remain, and some or all of them will still have to be tackled. But without a new leadership, we can’t even begin to do that.

That is why we need to remove Corbyn. Not to solve our problems, but to start to try and solve them. Not as a quick route to victory, but as the first step towards working out how we can deliver our values in government and persuade our fellow citizens. Not for a quick fix, but for a long, hard slog – gruelling, but the only way to help build the more equal, better country we all want.

If you want to help Owen’s campaign, please do sign up to volunteer.

How I voted for the Labour leadership

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.

Jeremy Corbyn

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

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

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.

Andy Burnham

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.

The case for gradualism (or why it’s worth taking Nuneaton with you)

One of the most infuriating memes of this leadership election is the claim that three out of four candidates are ‘Tory-lite’. The fact that the gap between Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron is titanic doesn’t mean the gap between Liz Kendall and David Cameron doesn’t exist. It’s real and it’s large: and people’s lives are transformed or wrecked within that gap. Jeremy came into the contest saying he wanted a broad debate: his supporters do nothing to help that by claiming that anyone to the right of Jeremy is the same as David Cameron.

Like Jeremy, the other contenders for the Labour leadership want to steer the ship of state in the opposite direction to David Cameron and George Osborne. They are talking about universal childcare, more rights for employees to influence the direction of their workplace, supporting union rights, supporting further education and finding money to protect tax credits. They want to both use state power and support others to narrow the gap between rich and poor in every sense: income, wealth, health, horizons, quality of life. They did not, however, go into politics just to wave a placard, or protest against a right-wing government, or preach the gospel to their activists and leave the public cold.

They’re right in that – partly because you can’t do anything if the voters reject you, and partly because life isn’t that simple. Changing anything is long, slow, gruelling: you have to set a goal, get people to sign up, repeat the same message constantly, check up on the delivery. It’s hard enough to get people used to a new company logo, never mind build millions of new homes. The bigger the task, the more undreamed-of problems you’ll encounter.

But with time and effort and will, you can change things – and Blair and Brown did just that. There is a tendency, when confronted by people to their left, for social democrats to reach for bar charts and graphs and tables of figures. I’ll make some apology for that, but only some. If you want to reduce poverty and put a stop to avoidable human misery, you have to care about the data and you have to be interested in the actual impact of your policies. If you aren’t interested in what’s actually happened to low incomes, don’t call yourself a leftist. If you care about the poor, you can find the time to look at some bar charts.

So let’s look. The IFS produced a chart showing the effect of Labour’s tax and benefit policies:

IFS graph of tax/benefit changes, 1997-2010

Corbynites would have you believe this chart is so unimportant you might as well have voted Tory. What it actually shows is a series of decisions taking money from the top 40%, but especially the richest, to give to the bottom 60%, but especially the poorest, on a large scale. That looks like pretty classic left-wing politics to me.

Now let’s look at their chart of Tory and Lib Dem tax and benefit reforms:

IFS graph of tax/benefit changes, 2010-19

You can see a kink at the top, due largely to keeping pre-planned Labour measures, but this is essentially taking from the poor to give to the fairly well off. It’s exactly the opposite of Labour’s record.

If you actually consider what Labour did, that’s not surprising. Working tax credit and child tax credit, higher National Insurance to fund public services (including above the upper earnings limit for the first time), more generous child benefit, pension credit, a 50p rate of income tax: these are exactly the sort of things social democratic governments normally do. The graph doesn’t, of course, show all the investment in health and education, Sure Start, the national minimum wage, the beginnings of childcare policy or a whole range of other things. And then there are all the other progressive things which wouldn’t show up on any UK bar chart – the advancement of LGBT rights, the Human Rights Act, doubling aid as a share of GDP and much more besides.

How can people possibly compare the last five years to the 13 years before that and then say there’s no point in a moderate Labour government? How can they possibly consider the most redistributive government in decades and then say it was just Tory-lite? Half the Corbynites’ rage is (rightly) directed at Cameron and Osborne’s attacks on the very things New Labour created: tax credits, Sure Start, extra help for families with children. But Labour was only ever able to do any of that because it met the electorate on their ground and won them over. If we cannot do that, raging is all we’ll have left to us.

When you win an election, you win political capital. Then you can use it to move politics your way. If you’re clever, you try and co-opt some of the areas where your opponents struck a chord too. Did the Tories call George Osborne ‘Labour-lite’ because he pretended to bring in a living wage? Did they lay into him for changing the rules on non-doms? No: they know they’re winning broader consent for shrinking the state. They get the art of democratic politics: a constant push-and-pull between what you ideally want, what the electorate will let you do and what’s practically possible.

And in government, Labour changed the weather too. Why did the Tories pledge to protect the NHS and not law and order – not just in 2010, but 2015 too? Why did they feel the need to raise the minimum wage? Why do we have 0.7% of GDP in aid now? Why do we have equal marriage? By 2010, it wasn’t OK not to protect the NHS; it wasn’t OK to sound openly anti-gay rights; protecting aid was a badge of Tory respectability. Labour governments made that true. Labour oppositions did not.

Owen Jones explains that the hard left is ‘defending New Labour’s legacy’. Great. So why is it simultaneously telling us none of it matters?

Corbynism (or why Nuneaton has a point)

I think Jeremy Corbyn would be an electoral disaster for the Labour Party from which it would take at least 10, probably 15 and quite possibly 20 years to recover. Too many of his supporters seem either indifferent to electoral success or utterly unaware of what that requires – but they’re right that the rest of us haven’t talked enough about policy. So here are a few of my concerns about his policies.

Jeremy says some things I support but don’t believe the British people will currently buy (a clear defence of higher taxes, though not necessarily his specific ones). There are also some I support and think they might well buy (universal childcare). But much of Corbynism isn’t just unelectable, but ill-thought-through, impractical and downright wrong.

Housing policy

Jeremy is calling for rent controls, with rent levels fixed in relation to earnings. Sounds wonderful: so why doesn’t Shelter buy it?

If you just cap prices in a situation where you haven’t got enough of something and too many people want to buy it, odd things start to happen. In this case, lots more people might sell rather than buy. Granted, we’ve all been saying we want more people to be able to buy homes. But what happens to people who can’t afford a deposit (or the still-uncapped mortgage payments) if the rental stock reduces too rapidly and the total housing supply doesn’t increase fast enough to match?

Will landlords just become more discriminating about people’s characteristics rather than the price they charge (‘No DSS’)? Will they cut back even further on things like repairs? Or will they subdivide properties more and more? More nuanced policies might be a different story (look at the rest of Europe, or the 2015 Labour manifesto), but just legislating a problem of supply and demand out of existence won’t work.

Jeremy is also proposing to extend some kind of ‘right to buy’ to the private sector. First of all, that seems a very odd spending priority for housing: our primary problem is insufficient stock, so why spend however much money on yet more subsidised ownership? (And since people in social housing have lower average incomes than private renters who can afford even a discounted property, isn’t it an odd distributional choice too?)

Second, how on earth would you control the cost? Right to buy may have done great damage, but at least councils actually owned the asset which was being flogged off: here, the state would have to pay the difference to landlords. (I suppose we could theoretically just take people’s property and give it to someone else at an enormous discount. Good luck getting that past the European Court of Human Rights.)

Third, why would you ever rent out a property if you could have it taken off you at any time? Like it or not, plenty of people can’t or don’t want to buy: they need a reliable private rented sector. By all means talk about how to improve it. But treating private rent with such abandon could really harm people who desperately need somewhere to live.

NATO membership

Jeremy has said he wants to leave NATO – our principal defence guarantee. Right now, our ‘if all else fails’ policy is NATO and, via NATO, the US commitment to Europe. We know that Jeremy doesn’t intend to raise defence spending way beyond 2% of GDP – it’s just about the only thing he’d definitely cut. There’s arguably an implicit defence guarantee in the EU treaties, and we have a European Defence Agency to co-operate on procurement, but these are a) pretty vestigial and b) exactly the kinds of things Jeremy won’t want the EU doing (assuming we stay in: see below).

So, given the rapidly rising costs of defence, Corbynism is offering us a radically reduced domestic capability, the abandonment of our key security guarantee and no replacement for either. That is not a defence policy. It’s crossing our fingers and hoping everyone will be nice to us forever.

EU membership

Jeremy has said he wants to fight for ‘a better Europe’, though we still don’t have a definite answer on how he’ll vote in the EU referendum.

Labour should, apparently, set out its own position on reform negotiations – which is fine as far as it goes. But almost nothing on David Cameron’s shopping list is going to appeal to Jeremy – and I doubt anything on Jeremy’s list will appeal to Cameron. The only real question is how much further Cameron will succeed in taking the EU away from Jeremy’s ideal.

If Jeremy might vote No, what would be his alternative? The European Economic Area (most of the free-market regulations without any say)? A Swiss model (slightly fewer regulations, slightly more say, but not a model the rest of Europe will ever offer)? No deal at all (and new tariffs on half our trade)? What makes him think Britain would discover the joys of radical socialism after voting with UKIP? And how does it help climate change negotiations to weaken one of the better players in said negotiations?

Again, this isn’t a policy. It’s a vague statement that the EU should be different, with no route map to change it.

The list goes on. You can’t talk about a ‘wealth tax on massive incomes’, fail to recognise that wealth and income are different things, conflate annual wealth taxes with one-off windfall taxes and expect to be taken seriously. You cannot talk about £50 billion of uncollected tax as though you can easily collect it in one fell swoop and expect anyone to think your sums add up. You cannot describe ‘not reducing our deficit as quickly’ as ‘funding’ free tuition and expect anyone to trust you not to wreck the public finances.

We’re not the Green Party: we’re supposed to be choosing a future Prime Minister. You cannot ask to govern a country with policies like these – not because they’re unelectable, but because they’re unworkable. Nuneaton wouldn’t buy Jeremy’s pitch: but we shouldn’t even be trying to sell it.