Should I vote for Liz Kendall?

Liz_Kendall_August_2014I really envy those comrades who’ve made their choice in the Labour leadership election and can get stuck into what we love best – bickering among ourselves. I feel left out. I’m all over the place. I change my mind hourly. I’ve toyed with “interesting” preference votes (like Kendall 1, Corbyn 2, and vice-versa) and spoiling my ballot paper altogether (how do you do that online?). For wildly different reasons, I can still see myself voting for any of the four candidates.

So I thought I might try to flush myself out by blogging something about each one, starting, for no paticular reason, with Liz Kendall. Hopefully, I’ll get round to Jeremy, Andy and Yvette in the next couple of weeks.

Kendall sometimes seems to have gone out of her way to alienate traditionally-minded Labour members and has based her campaign so far largely on claims that she has the best chance of winning the 2020 election.

If that were anywhere near true, I would vote for her like a shot, even though winning elections on policies you don’t like seems almost as pointless to me as losing them on policies that you do. Principles without power are worthless, true, but so is power without principles (unless you happen to be the one wielding the power). But Labour is facing an existential crisis and there’s no viable left-wing alternative as a party of government. If Liz can turn it round, so be it.

But my real problem with backing Liz Kendall is that her election winning strategy doesn’t work. I’ve tried to get my head round it, but the numbers just don’t stack up.

I’ve seen nothing from Team Kendall which suggests that their plan is anything other than to try to repeat the New Labour strategy of the 1990s. That wasn’t as sophisticated as terms like “triangulation” made it sound. Basically, Tony Blair tried to win over “centrist” or “soft” Tories by adopting key elements of the Tory programme: privatisation, deregulation, benefit cuts and so on. The calculation, broadly correct in the 1990s, was that Labour’s “core” vote among working class people and middle-class lefties had nowhere else to go. It worked pretty well, although the long-term damage in terms of loss of faith among Labour’s traditional supporters is only now becoming apparent.

Kendall seems to me the least well placed of the four candidates to win back support from the SNP and Greens, and a Blairite leader seems unlikely to appeal to UKIP voters.I’ve no idea why intelligent people think this will work 23 years later. The numbers and political realities are completely different. There are far fewer soft Tories now, and fewer Tories full stop. The Conservatives polled 36.9% in May, compared to 41.9% in 1992. Long-term polling evidence suggest the Tory core vote is around 30% (roughly what they were reduced to in 1997 and 2001). So there aren’t many soft Tories for Labour to win over by pretending to like their policies.

Labour is also starting from a lower base than in 1992, when it polled 34.4% and won 271 seats. Professor John Curtice says that to win in 2020, Labour will need a swing even bigger than Tony Blair achieved in 1997. If all or most of that has to come from the Tories’ existing vote – 5% lower than in 1992 – the job looks impossible.

The other part of this revived New Labour strategy won’t work either. As the 2015 election brutally demonstrated, Labour’s traditional voters are now all too willing to go elsewhere, whether it’s white working class people switching to UKIP, middle-class liberals voting Green, or Scots backing the SNP. Kendall seems to me the least well placed of the four candidates to win back support from the SNP and Greens, and a Blairite leader seems unlikely to appeal to UKIP voters (Kendall is also very pro-EU). I know a lot of people like to think UKIP will simply implode but, even if that does happen, aren’t those disenchanted ex-Labour voters more likely to find another alternative, or give up voting altogether, than return to a Labour Party that looks a lot like the one that drove them away in the first place? And just ask yourself – honestly – how many of the 40 seats Labour lost in Scotland Kendall is likely to win back by moving Labour closer to the Tories.

If anything, Liz seems likely to accentuate the flight of Labour’s traditional supporters. And that means she’ll have to win even more votes from the slim pickings available from the Tories. This risks a ratchet effect where the need to pursue more and more Tory voters pulls the party ever further to the right. Far from being to only candidate who can win, Kendall’s strategy seems the least plausible route to power for Labour in 2020.

The only conceivable way it could work would be if there is a very large pool of non-voters who want a return to something like Blairism and weren’t prepared to make do with Miliband’s Labour or Cameron’s Tories in 2015. But I don’t see any evidence for that. And, in any case, Kendall supporters generally dismiss going after non-voters (at least when it’s suggested by Jeremy Corbyn supporters) as a “non-starter”.

I really hope Liz can come up with something else, because in many ways she’s the most engaging candidate: relatively untainted by the Blair-Brown years, brave, tough, committed, open to new ideas and likely to give Labour the kind of collegiate leadership it needs now (whether she wants to or not). Perhaps Liz can conjure up some of that political magic which can occasionally confound electoral arithmetic. She might still be worth a try. But if you base your appeal mainly on being able to win the election, having an electoral strategy that doesn’t seem to work seems like a big drawback.

3 Comments

  1. […] Should I vote for Liz Kendall? 17 July 2015 […]

    Reply

  2. Hi Craig, I enjoyed reading this piece and I liked some of the things that you had to say however I think you need to reconsider your point on strategy because the evidence isn’t there:
    1) EVEL means that England is the electoral priority and that the legitimacy of any future British government will be founded in England.
    2) Fabian Society research shows that 4/5 voters Labour needs to win over voted Tory in England in order to get a majority.
    3) A TUC poll found the following from voters who considered Labour but went to other parties (but not the Tories): 29% were scared of the SNP, 24% thought Labour would spend too much and couldn’t be trusted on the economy, 23% thought Labour would make it too easy for people to live on benefits, 17% said they’d raise taxes. So that is the 20% of people Labour need to win back.
    4) Jon Cruddas’s independent inquiry found that it was the “anti-austerity” that did for Labour in May. Ukip and Liberal Democrat voters agreed with the statement that “we must live within our means, so cutting the deficit is the top priority” in proportions of 63% and 58% respectively.
    5) Liz Kendall’s politics is not 1990s New Labour Redux. What she is saying is that Labour needs to change from the last 8 years and that means learning the lessons of the past (be it 1997, 1966 or 1945) which is owning the future, being on the centre ground, gaining trust on the economy and speaking to all sections of society. However, she’s led the way on devolution and dispersal of power, reform of the economy by putting workers on boards, introducing the living wage and expanding share ownership. There’s also a deep rooted understanding of globalisation. So to box her politics as some relic from the past is not correct.

    I do hope you consider these things in your next blog. Thanks.

    Reply

    1. Thanks for you comments, Ron. I’ll respond briefly point-by-point.

      1) I think that’s just a statement of the obvious. The legitimacy of all British governments is founded in England, as England has 80% of the seats. I presume your point is that we should simply write off Scotland for Labour. Fair enough, but I think there are already clear signs that the kind of disenchantment with Labour (among former core supporters) we’ve seen in Scotland is spreading to England. It’s not as powerful or emotive a political force because the “nationalist” factor is missing, but I think it’s there all the same.

      2) I’ve not seen this – perhaps you could post a link? I’m a bit dubious about how they could identify the particular “voters Labour needs to win over”. It sounds a bit circular – you decide Labour needs to win over Tories and then, hey presto!, it turns out most of them voted Tory. But I’ll refrain from further comment until I’ve seen the report.

      3) I don’t think the results of that poll say what you think they do. Those percentages are actually quite low. Yes, 24% of those voters thought Labour would spend too much & couldn’t be trusted on the economy, but that is much lower than voters generally (40%). So anti-Tory voters who didn’t vote Labour were less worried about those things. Also, people who didn’t vote Labour because they thought the party was too right wing didn’t have any options to choose from. Which is why I suspect the figures for all the responses were quite low. If they had suggested something like “Labour’s just the same as the Tories” I think they’d have got a high return.

      You should also look at the figures for people who had doubts about the Tories but still didn’t vote Labour. These voters are more concerned about inequality and cuts in public services than voters overall.

      4) I’m afraid you can prove anything with leading questions like that. If they had asked “public services are in crisis, we can’t afford any more cuts” they would probably have a got a similar result.

      In any case, the question was not about “austerity” at all – the term wasn’t even mentioned. Austerity and “living within your means” aren’t the same thing. We’ve had five years of austerity from Osborne, during which time he has missed every deficit target and national debt has INCREASED by over 50%. I wouldn’t call that living within your means.

      5) I didn’t say Liz’s politics were retro, just the electoral strategy. In fact, I went out of my way to say that she had the most interesting ideas. I thought her speech on devolving power was excellent and the stuff on industrial democracy and the living wage is right up my street. But I don’t think platitudes like “looking to future” get us very far (we hear enough of that from Yvette). As for “being in the centre ground”, no, sorry, the Labour Party is left-of-centre. I’m all for realism, but I don’t think you can just drag a political movement about to wherever you think it’s easiest to win an election. It’s about devising a winning strategy for the politics we believe in, not the other way around. If that’s too hard, then you shouldn’t be running for leader.

      Can you tell me one significant way in which Liz’s electoral strategy differs from New Labour’s in the 1990s? The only one I can think of, because it obviously won’t work in Scotland, is saying that Scotland doesn’t matter any more. I’ve had a lot of chats with Liz’s supporters in recent weeks and no one has been able to tell me how you’re going to win over all these Tory voters without losing votes elsewhere.

      So, not so brief in the end! Best wishes.

      Reply

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