Thursday, 21 May 2015

First thoughts on the Labour leadership

I am genuinely undecided on who should be the next leader of the Labour Party, the next deputy leader and Labour's candidate for Mayor of London. I would like to be certain, because I'm not used to being uncertain and because elections are fun and I'd like to be on a side, preferably a winning one.

The first thing to say is where I stand on the Labour Party spectrum: I'm a Brownite. By that, I mean I think the primary focus of the Labour Party yesterday, today and tomorrow should be on the economy. I think we win when we prove that we can make the country more prosperous, like we did with 10 years of continuous growth under Gordon Brown as Chancellor. We have to be pro-business, pro-entrepreneurship and pro-wealth creation, we should seek to keep taxes as low as possible and not put them up for the sake of it. We have to focus on how we create the jobs of the future, and have a proper industrial strategy. 

What we don't have to do is waste hours, days and months going on about public sector 'reform'. I'm not against reform in principle. In particular, we can democratise public services without privatising or fragmenting them. But it's not even that I think increased fragmentation rather than coordination, especially in the NHS, is both inefficient and dangerous, that I oppose making it core to our offer. It's that it's simply not a vote-winner. 

At best, people are ambivalent or don't care about public service reform; at worst, they're actively hostile to change, especially, as we've seen over the past 5 years, in relation to schools. (Outside some pockets). It's true that people believe "what matters is what works", which is why they're not receptive to scaremongering about "NHS privatisation", but, as Andy Burnham says, generally speaking, "what works is the public NHS". Even the Tories have grasped this: they're promising a "7 day NHS" that they'll impose from the centre. No one is complaining about "statism" from the Tories.

So that's where I stand. But I'm trying desperately not to be factional, because that's how we ended up with Ed Miliband. Even in 2010, however, if David Miliband had overpowered me with his brilliance, I would have overlooked him being a "Blairite". I don't care what the leader we elect believes, I care that he or she can and will win. I care what the British people will think of them. Quite frankly, the important question is whether they can eat a bacon sandwich without looking like a buffoon.

For me, this comes down to the "blink test": can you close your eyes and imagine the person on the steps of No 10? That's what will be at the forefront of my mind when deciding which candidate to be completely devoted to. Right now, and I could be wrong, the only candidate that passes the blink test is Yvette Cooper. 

This leadership election is depressingly like the last one. If Yvette Cooper had run last time, she would have been prime minister right now. If the unions and the media had taken Andy Burnham seriously last time, so would he (maybe). (That they were right, or at least more right than various Milibands, last time, does not mean they're right this time) It's a terrible shame that Tristram Hunt, Dan Jarvis and Chuka Umunna have decided not to run. It's an even greater shame that Labour MPs appear to have overlooked Mary Creagh, who actually looks and sounds like a real person and has the advantage of not being part of the spadocracy.

Like David Miliband, the wrong people are supporting Liz Kendall. (By the wrong people, I mean only that they think New Labour was an intellectual project. Many of them are wonderful, dedicated, funny and attractive, often all at once). Unlike David Miliband, Liz Kendall, despite being a complete wonk, knows how to speak non-wonk. She gives straight answers to questions, she's confident, and she's dynamic. She would demonstrate dramatically that Labour had changed and she would drag Labour kicking and screaming into the 21st century. She's a deep thinker with bags of ideas. She would lead an active opposition, rather than a hesitant one, and she would terrify the Tories. As her slogan says, she would be a fresh start, drawing a line under the 1997-2010 government.

But. I have serious doubts. Does she speak and act like a prime minister? Like a leader of the whole country? My gut tells me she looks like a great reform Health Secretary, and not more than that.

Secondly, she says her priority is public service reform. At a time when we should be regaining trust on the economy, this is misguided. As I said above, there's nothing wrong with reform, and I like her focus on early years education. (Having said that, no way to free schools: not just because they're a waste of money, but also because, outside the parents setting them up, they're not especially popular). But we really need to be focusing on the economy. What does Liz Kendall think about company law reform? Or tax reform? Or industrial relations? She has to, and we have to, do better than talking about "aspiration" to regain a hearing on the economy. I hope, if she wins, she puts people who actually worked in the private sector front and centre of the Labour team. 

Does she actually care about inequality of wealth and power in the private sector itself? After all, most people's lives revolve around the private sector. If you spend your entire life thinking about health policy, it's understandable you don't think about the private sector, but it's vital to talking to people in a language they understand.

The same, sadly, goes for Andy Burnham. His moaning about the NHS for four years has not endeared him to me, and has probably coloured what the British people think of him too. I think he has the capacity to talk about business, and aspiration more generally, but he didn't do a particularly good job as shadow education secretary, so I just don't know. He does normal so much better than Ed Miliband. He's the best communicator, and I think a lot of people would relate to him. He would inject passion into the Labour Party. He's most likely not to throw what was a good manifesto in the bin. Unlike Ed Miliband, we could raise him on the doorstep without shrugging and looking at the floor.

And yet. And yet. There's this sense in which he feels like a student politician, happy to complain and less happy to lead. Can he do well in small Midlands towns? He looks too much like he's about to cry a lot, which is hardly getting across the competence message we really need. And all that stuff about the 'heart of Labour' just seems so 50s. Or 30s. Or American.

So Yvette should be the happy medium. She certainly gives off an air of competence, and she's very experienced. She's going to focus on the important things, being pro-business, but also looking at improving family life and gender equality. If she's a little boring, maybe that's what we need. Certainly the team behind her, including Liz and Andy, can inject more excitement and particularly ideas, but for a party so far behind on competence, boring might just do the trick.

But I wonder if she's just too rehearsed, whether she can give as good as she'll get from David Cameron and Boris Johnson. We're going to need massive swings at the next election, maybe we need someone who will give people more of a reason to get out and vote. Right now it feels as if she's been a bit complacent: hoping to get the votes of people who want a female leader without planning for another credible female candidate emerging. She needs to show a bit more oomph.

Right now, though, she's getting my vote, if not my support. But I don't feel comfortable about it. I feel like the race will end up being between Andy and Liz, because, like in 2010, the right and left of the party will get tribal about it. Yvette will end up where her husband was, third. And if there's one thing I really want, it's to back a winner. Oh well.

At the very least, I'll be happy with any of these candidates - all of them would do better than Ed Miliband, even if it remains to be seen whether they'll do well enough.

What I am certain about is that apocalyptic warnings about what will happen if one candidate or another wins are not helpful. Andy Burnham is not going to lurch to the left. He is not a Scouse Ed Miliband. If he's a prettier Ed Miliband, the value of being prettier is not to be discounted. But he's a sensible, experienced person who was involved in New Labour from the beginning and knows how to win. Liz Kendall is not going to privatise the NHS, even if she wanted to, for the very simple reason that Labour MPs are still Labour MPs and wouldn't let her. She's also not going to be a slave to big business. Yvette Cooper can probably learn how to get bloody lively. And after our experiences with Ed and Gordon, we're not going to let an under-performing leader carry on

I'm probably going to vote for candidates that won't do well in the deputy leadership and Mayoral selection as well, though I'm more certain with those.

For the deputy leadership, I'm leaning towards Ben Bradshaw: he's a good personality and communicator and seems to be doing something right in Exeter. Of course, it'll probably boil down to Tom Watson vs Stella Creasy in which case my vote goes to Tom: I used to rate Stella, until I saw her come out with the biggest load of wonkspeak ever on the Sunday Politics last week. Saying nothing in an amiable way is not enough to be Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. Tom Watson is, at least, in every way, a heavyweight. I've never rated Caroline Flint as a communicator as much as some other people have, and Angela Eagle is deeply deeply boring.

I'm supporting David Lammy for Mayor: I'm most certain about that. Since leaving the frontbench, he's consistently been an interesting thinker, especially about social exclusion. He's relatable when he speaks and I think he'd be a good representative for London: there are few doubts about his competence. I think Diane Abbott is massively underestimated, especially in terms of whether she can win: after all, Boris won and Londoners are likely to support a free thinker, especially since they don't think the Mayor has a lot of power. The difference between Diane and Boris is that Diane will actually use the power she has, for the benefit of the poorest Londoners.

Anyway, Tessa Jowell and Sadiq Khan are the frontrunners, because they've been planning it for years,and because they've sewn up support from the establishment of their respective factions, so I'll probably have to decide between them. Sadiq strikes me as exceptionally boring: Tessa has so much more oomph: with her oomph and experience I have no doubt she'll win and do a good job as Mayor, even if I don't think she's as popular among the public as she thinks she is.

I'm sorry to have called people boring. It's nothing personal. I believe most of all that the collective is more important than the individual, so the policy platform that we have and whether we win will be the product of work of so many more people than the leaders we elect. That makes the personal charisma of the candidates even more important. We really shouldn't judge them by their policies, which will be decided by the policy process, but by how they'll sell those policies to the country/city. So if they're boring, that's a problem.

Come what may, it's going to be a long summer. Lots of things will be said by the candidates and their supporters, many enlightening, most idiotic. I'd like to know the views of the candidates on so many things: housing, climate change, Trident, etc. At the same time, I'd like to decide early so I can get stuck in to one campaign or other: I haven't got much else on this summer yet. But what your gut says matters too, and my gut says Yvette for leader, Bradshaw for deputy, Lammy for mayor. Anyone fancy convincing me not to trust my gut?

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