I 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.