‘Mine is the real anti-austerity politics, because it will help Labour win and stop the vile things the Tories are doing’, Liz Kendall tells Richard Angell and Adam Harrison
Straight from a terrible defeat – one arguably worse than the nadir of 1983 – Labour plunged into a leadership contest that has been gripped by Corbynmania and too few ideas. Offering a ‘fresh choice’ to the party, Liz Kendall has been in the firing line from those positioning themselves to her left. However, the member of parliament for Leicester West enters the ballot stage of the contest as the only candidate to have made big speeches, championed big causes, and sought to forge a new politics: blue Labour in dialogue with the revisionist tradition that started with the Gaitskellites in the 1950s.
What spurred her to contest the leadership of the Labour party? ‘This party has been the greatest champion of equality that this country has ever seen. The great achievements we’ve made as a country I think have been led by the party that I love and I want to see us do it again.’
Kendall has dipped in and out of politics, having also worked in the NHS and the voluntary sector. But she was drawn back to politics, this time in the frontline as a member of parliament. Soon afterwards, Ed Miliband invited her to join Labour’s health team. And for Kendall, her entry to battle for Labour on the frontline of national politics is about more than a career, it is something that is deeply personal: ‘I will give my life to this party. It’s what I believe in. It’s how I make sense of my purpose in life.
Kendall grew up outside Watford, a place symbolic of the very type of seat Labour needs to win back. ‘I don’t believe the people I grew up with – the family and friends who are still there – voted out of any great love for the Tories. It was’, she protests, ‘because we didn’t provide a credible alternative’. Bringing the point home, she adds, ‘It was a seat held by the Tories for many years until 1997. We held it till 2010 … now it’s got a stonking Tory majority.’ Kendall – the top choice of Labour’s 2015 target seat candidates – is clear that it was not the fault of those who went the extra mile for Labour and to win the votes to get David Cameron out of Downing Street.
Labour lost among men in every age group and with women over 50, was 19 points behind the Tories with people who work in the private sector and held a measly three-point lead with public sector workers. What is the key to winning people back? ‘Aspiration’, which for several weeks was the post-election watchword in Labour’s debate, ‘has become a dirty word’ for some people, but ‘it never has been and it never will be with me’, she argues. Kendall is clear that a Labour party led by her will be ‘aspirational for ourselves and for others’. ‘It’s not some kind of middle-class preserve. In my constituency, families who are in some of the more deprived parts are [the most determined, even] desperate for their kids to be able to have a better shot at life than they did. Are desperate for them to have a good education, the chance of going on to university or college or in having a hope in hell of having a good job in the future. They want their kids to be able to have a chance of buying a house. “Aspiration” is something for [everyone] right across the board.’
To make this a reality, Labour must win back economic credibility, the argument goes. In no uncertain terms, Kendall argues that Labour has to be known for being ‘careful with people’s money’. Does that not make you a ‘Tory’, as many in Labour are now quick to argue?
Kendall’s message to those who deny the centrality of regaining this trust is that ‘they don’t know Labour’s real history’. ‘It was Nye Bevan’, she recalls, ‘who said, “Freedom is the by-product of an economic surplus.” It was Harold Wilson’s winning 1964 election manifesto [that] bemoaned the waste of money being spent on servicing the debt, rather than investing in local public services.’ ‘These are Labour values’, she insists. When we last spoke to Kendall she made clear that, ‘it’s wrong to be spending more on servicing our debt than educating our children.’ Do her competitors agree? Jeremy Corbyn, the hard-left contender, seems to have learned all the wrong lessons from Bevan’s era. ‘Debt is now only 80 per cent of GDP’, he broadcast from a rostrum in Liverpool. ‘Under the Attlee government it was 250 per cent of GDP. And they still increased public spending, and so can we.’ Her retort to the politics of the magic money tree comes from the left’s playbook, pure Keynes: we can ‘not spend more than we earn when the times are good’, otherwise there is nothing for the rainy day.
Jon Cruddas’ independent commission into Labour’s election result recently released its first findings. ‘The first hard truth is that the Tories didn’t win despite austerity, they won because of it’, it argued. ‘Voters did not reject Labour because they saw it as austerity-lite. Voters rejected Labour because they perceived the party as anti-austerity-lite.’ This has provoked the usual reaction from the party’s left – and those to Labour’s left who are busily signing up Corbyn supporters. But Cruddas puts it in no uncertain terms: ‘the public appear to think anti-austerity is a vote loser’.
So what is Kendall’s response? ‘If we’re deaf to these calls from the public for fiscal responsibility, we’ll be out of power for decades’ she warns. Turning the left’s critique on its head again, Kendall insists, ‘the politics I’m putting forward is actually the real anti-austerity politics’. When Labour puts its energies into ‘running sound public finances’ it ‘win[s] elections’, meaning Labour politicians ‘can actually stop some of the awful, vile things that the Tories are doing’. The current shadow care minister is able perhaps better than anyone currently at the top of Labour politics to identify the real divide between the Conservatives and Labour: George Osborne’s summer budget promotes ‘inherited wealth for the few’, she says, while Labour’s mission under her will be to ‘tackle the inherited poverty for too many people’. ‘This is the politics that will really be anti-austerity. It will allow us to win power and to have a totally different alternative from what the Tories are doing.’ Articulating this fundamental difference and putting flesh on the bones of a plan to achieve this is what will make clear how Labour differs from its array of competitors.
But has a party of the left not won in Scotland? Not if you look at the Scottish National party’s ‘actual record in government’, Kendall argues. ‘Fewer young people are going on to university’ due to a regressive cap on student numbers. ‘The number of FE places have been cut’, she continues. ‘The SNP … has got a whole load of powers that they’re not actually using’. ‘They hoard’, the power communities deserve over their lives and public services ‘in Holyrood rather than giving it back’. In the same way ‘we should never try to out-Ukip Ukip [in England] … it will never succeed [if we] say are more Scottish than the SNP. We have a different kind of a politics. We believe in solidarity and must never give [that] up.’
What we should change, Kendall maintains, is New Labour’s ‘cavalier’ attitude towards international market forces. ‘Globalisation is opening up massive opportunities for some people,’ claims the leadership candidate, ‘for some of our brilliant world-leading companies, our car manufacturers, pharmaceuticals, for our creative industries and technology’. ‘But’ not those who ‘don’t have the skills for those kind of jobs [and feel] left behind in very low-skill, low-paid work’.
To meet these challenges Kendall’s campaign has launched ‘five causes’ that Gloria De Piero suggests on page four of this month’s Progress, ‘should be to the next Labour government, what Beveridge was to Attlee’s government’. Kendall says, ‘It is a vision. These are the causes that will create a better future for Britain in 2025 and I’ve chosen those because the reason I joined the party was a such a sense of injustice that so many people never have the chance to fulfil their potential.’
Kendall really does sound as though she picked the causes herself – and intends to follow through on them. Voters seek both ‘authenticity’ in politics and a feeling that a leader has a sense of purpose. Saying what you mean and setting out clear principles from which decisions will be taken rather than rushing to set out policy are the first ingredients for electoral success in 2020.
The woman who would be Labour’s first elected female leader concludes, ‘I love this party’. ‘That is why I say some of the difficult things, as well as hopefully some of the inspiring things – because that is what great leaders do.’
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