It is time for Labour’s first woman prime minister, argues Liz Kendall
Wearing a Hillary Clinton signature pantsuit, Liz Kendall strides into the room. We meet her ahead of a whistle stop she is taking to the marginal seats Labour was expecting to win last month and needs to win if it is to replace the Tories in government again. Appearing confident and determined, is she the woman to break the glass ceiling for Labour on this side of the Atlantic, we ask. ‘I might be biased, but I think it’s about time that Labour had our first woman leader and,’ she is keen to add, ‘prime minister’. Kendall, who used to work for Harriet Harman, is keenly aware that Margaret Beckett and her former boss have led the party. It is the job that too few Labour leaders have gone on to do that she is focused on. ‘I’m putting myself forward because I believe I have got the guts and courage Labour needs to change to win again. I have never been afraid of saying what I think. I want to bring people with me, but I am going to be clear about the direction of travel I think Labour needs to go in if we are going to win again.’
It is often said that Kendall’s lack of experience counts against her, so how would she beat the Tories in the chamber? ‘We’ll beat Cameron and the Conservatives when we show true leadership. I think leaders, good leaders, listen. They build a strong team. They debate and then they decide. I’ll be a person who says uncomfortable things to the Labour party, but that’s because we’ve got to change to regain people’s trust and win again in 2020.’
‘I am tough and decisive,’ she responds to the charge that she was a forthright negotiator in her special adviser days, ‘because I want to get the best results for Labour and the best results for people in this country. And I have always built strong teams. when I ran organisations before I became an MP and when I have been part of Labour’s health team.’
As something of an outsider in Ed Miliband’s shadow cabinet she has much to say about running an inclusive party. ‘No one should be afraid, ever, in the Labour party, of hearing different opinions.’ Chris Mullin’s diaries talk about how inclusive Tony Blair’s early governments were, but time, and feuding from No 11, changed this. The left of the party felt alienated as a consequence. Do they have anything to worry about under Kendall? ‘I think we have always been a broad church and we have had more in common that unites us than divides us. I will listen to all views, but I want to be clear: I will be decisive. We can’t have any fudge in our politics if we are going to change the party to win in 2020 and change the country.’
Changing the country for Kendall will only happen if we ‘appeal to  Tory voters. That’s the only way we win. That does not mean we have to become Tories. One of our problems in the last parliament was that too many people felt we didn’t share their values of hard work, responsibility, taking care of yourself and your family and others … I believe those values are Labour’s values and the country’s values.’
While Tories actively relish and delight in snatching votes from their opponents, Labour sometimes appears to recoil from the task of switching voters from David Cameron’s party. ‘I think I’ll change that,’ Kendall responds, ‘because I grew up in Watford, an area which has been Labour, and was a marginal, and now has a stonking Tory majority. And my parents, and my friends and my family, many of whom still live there, want the same things as people who live in a Labour seat like Leicester. They want a good job that pays a decent wage; they want to live in a nice home that’s safe for their kids; they want great schools so that their children get the best shot at life; and they want to know that when they retire that they’ve actually got something to look forward to. What people in Watford want and what people in Leicester want, I believe, is the same.’
Before the election, the member of parliament for Leicester West and her parliamentary colleague and supporter Steve Reed authored a pamphlet for Progress, Let it go, that challenged Labour to break out of its centralising tendencies. Does Labour have to leave the 1945 inheritance behind? ‘We have to refind our roots as a party,’ she reflects. ‘Ordinary people coming together to help themselves and one another. My mission as Labour’s leader will be to put power into the hands of as many people as possible, over their public services but also on the economy. Because it is our cities, towns and county regions that are going to drive much of the growth we need to succeed as a country.’
How politics has to change is a big part of Kendall’s message. It starts with who Labour welcomes into parliament, she suggests. ‘If you’re a nurse or a teacher or a home care worker or you run your own small business you simply can’t spend 13 weeks trying to get selected and then two years doing the sort of intensity of campaigning that we need, unless you get that broader support. We’ve got to wake up to that otherwise we will become a party where only people who’ve got the money put themselves forward.’
I’ll be a person who says uncomfortable things to the Labour party, but that’s because we’ve got to change to regain people’s trust
‘We have too much inequality in this country already. Half of the growth that we have seen over the last parliament has come from London and the south-east’, Kendall says, as she attempts to square devolution with equity, and the battle against inequality. ‘We need much greater growth in all parts of the country. And too many kids don’t get an equal start in life. That means they play catch-up for the rest of their lives. The only way we’ll change that is if we make sure parents, families and communities are much more involved in their local services – that’s how we’ll tackle the inequality the country faces. We cannot simply pull a lever from Whitehall and solve all the problems in this country.’
The economy runs through Kendall’s pitch to become leader. How can Labour demonstrate economic credibility in future – do the ‘golden rules’ of the past not feel a little tired now? ‘It starts with strong public finances’, she responds. ‘We should balance the books and live within our means and get the debt down. Because, unless we do that, we won’t be able to invest in the schools and the hospitals people need. I think it’s wrong to be spending more on servicing our debt than educating our children. Sound public finances and people trusting you with their money and their taxes is the basic test of competence of any party that wants to be fit to govern.
‘We’ve got to show how we get a dynamic economy in every part of the country,’ she continues. ‘That means sorting out the real problems that we’ve got with skills, infrastructure. It means making sure we can compete with the rest of the world by improving our productivity. And it means being a confident, outward-looking country that uses our position in Europe to turbo-charge jobs and growth. That’s how we regain economic competence’. In no uncertain terms she points out that, ‘it won’t be easy. We will have to start as we mean to go on and set out our alternative to the Tories’ plans – not simply attack them for everything they are doing.’
‘I want a distinctive Labour pro, “Yes-to-Europe” campaign,’ says the leadership contender. And, reaching ’to the heart of a central disagreement between the candidates, she goes further. ‘But it would be a huge mistake to somehow boycott a wider “Yes” campaign. Why would we turn our backs on trade unionists who want a strong social Europe? Why would we turn our backs on businesses whose support we need to win again? And why would we turn our back on young people and the green movement who’ll be passionate about staying in Europe? We’ve got to go out early, strong and passionately for the benefits of Europe – and that’s what will happen under my leadership.’
Labour’s general election candidates ‘should be at the heart of this leadership campaign,’ says the would-be prime minister on the day she received support from the former parliamentary candidate for Nuneaton. Victoria Fowler’s result will be etched on the minds of so many who watched with horror in the early hours of 8 May as it became the first confirmation of the exit poll’s prediction. ‘We [now] need to support those candidates, many of whom have given up their jobs and their lives and been away from their families.’ Kendall continues, ‘I’ve spoken to several of them who feel they’ve simply been dropped after the election campaign. I want many of those candidates to stand again. But to do so they have got to know that their views and their voices have been heard.’
It is an ‘isolating experience being a candidate’, she concludes, something many who stand soon discover – and something which Kendall will no doubt be experiencing now like never before.
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