The Labour Leadership Contest: A view from an ordinary voter

Academic Philip Larkin (not the poet of the same name who died 30 years ago) discusses the contest for leadership of the UK Labour Party.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article do not neccessarily reflect the views of the Dreaming Armadillo blog.

Introduction

Over the past month or so I have been encouraged to make a more positive contribution to the Labour leadership contest and to write in favour my preferred candidate. I would like to put the case for Liz Kendall, and will be explaining the reasons for my preference by way of comparison with the other candidates in the race, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, and Jeremy Corbyn. View from a Labour Voter While I was a member of the Labour Party as a postgrad student, my membership lapsed several years ago. This lapse was not down to the Second Gulf War, or criticisms of Tony Blair, but simply because I became too preoccupied with finishing my research, finding employment, and I moved around the UK due to work on a number of occasions. One friend who is closely involved with the Labour Party, and a supporter of Corbyn’s candidature, told me on Facebook that I should “move on”, that my criticisms amounted to mere negativity and were somehow of less value because I was not directly involved in the Party itself. I could not disagree more. As an ordinary voter I am exactly the sort of person whom Labour needs to persuade if they want to win elections; some people still nurse the subconscious belief that the Party exists for the benefit of its members alone, and are prone to “love-ins” in which they are insulated from the views of the wider electorate, in turn generating a trend of self-destructive wishful thinking. Many people at the last election who voted Conservative could easily, under different circumstances, have voted Labour. This friend also refuses point-blank to set out the reasons why he favours Corbyn as leader, a stance which I find baffling. Or perhaps it isn’t quite so baffling. Maybe it simply amounts to: “Corbyn is my hero/alter ego, and I will not countenance any criticism of him.”

Although I voted Labour in the recent election my main feeling on hearing the final result was guilty relief. Being totally honest, I wavered in the ballot box before putting a cross beside the Labour candidate in preference to Boris Johnson, now my MP. I did not wish to see any coalition led by Ed Miliband which included the SNP governing the country. In any event, Alex Salmond managed to frighten off centrist voters in England by declaring that he would be “writing the budget” in any Labour/SNP coalition, as did Nicola Sturgeon, who stated that she would “lock Cameron out of Downing Street.” I believe that this was part of a ploy on the part of the SNP to ensure a Tory victory, thus allowing them to stress how different Scotland is from England in political terms. I also think that Miliband would have made a very ineffectual leader of such a coalition.
I do not intend to spend very long discussing Corbyn’s candidature. When he received enough votes to enter the contest, I expressed my disappointment and extreme irritation on Facebook. Without making any comment about his personality, I think that his admission to the leadership ballot was disastrous for the future prospects of the Party. What he has to offer amounts to little more than re-heated Bennism, a section of the Party which was comprehensively defeated in the 1980s. His candidature has breathed life into this wing of Labour, and makes a statement to the electorate that the Party is still not sure whether Blair’s reforms and his realignment of the British left towards the centre were good for Labour, and shows that there is still nostalgia towards antiquated Marxist ideas no longer applicable in modern society. In addition, my hand would drop off if I voted for Party leader a man who calls Hamas and Hezbollah his friends (when challenged about this on Channel 4 News about this he became very nasty and defensive, and his attempted explanation was meaningless).

Some polls indicate that Corbyn can actually win the contest. If he wins, or even manages to come in any place other than last, I despair for the Party.  As a Labour voter, I would very much like to continue voting for the Party, with at least a moderate chance that it might actually win a general election.  In my view, Labour cannot be electorally successful in the medium term unless it comes to terms with the extent of its defeat in May, the worst since at least 1983. I also think that whoever becomes leader, this is going to be an extremely difficult Parliament for Labour. I will say more about this below.

This leads me on to reflect on some of the economic and educational reforms made by the recent Coalition Government, and how these relate to the other three candidates in the race. Towards a rebalancing of the economy In spite of all the stick which Cameron and Osborne received from many quarters about being posh private school boys,  they, along with Vince Cable, were much more energetic and visionary about the chronic need for technical education and skills training for manufacturing industries. Possibly the greatest disservice the Thatcher Governments did for the working population, and for school leavers in particular, was wilfully to neglect and run down the manufacturing base of the UK economy, and deliberately not provide the necessary technical education to rebuild it on new foundations. Instead, the preference was for service industries and the financial sector, which were supposed to be the wave of the future at that time. While it is not the purpose of this article to minimise the importance of the service and financial sectors (they are very important), the idea that we could all live by “cutting each other’s hair” or “taking in each other’s washing” was simply ridiculous, and pushed many young people into low-skilled, low-paid, dead-end jobs in which there were few prospects of improving one’s lot. School leavers were pushed on to YTS training programmes specialising in skills like hairdressing and shop work, and, although there is absolutely nothing wrong with such trades, there is a limit to how far one’s pay and prospects can improve in fields such as these. While others, mainly young men, received training in useful and difficult trades in the construction industry such as carpentry, plumbing and as electrics, thus providing much needed new accommodation (as well as allowing them to make a reasonable living in good times), it did little to revive the UK as a manufacturing nation. It must be said that earlier New Labour Governments perpetuated this mistake by expanding the numbers of school leavers entering higher education. While in principle this was a wonderful idea, and allowed the higher education sector to become very powerful and influential throughout the world, all too many young people ended up on pointless university courses in fields such as media or theatre studies which not only led them into a career blind alley but also obliged them to run up tens of thousands of pounds of debt in the process.

Now, after too many years, the penny finally appears to have dropped among the political classes that high level training for precision industries is a sound policy to adopt. This has been recognised across the spectrum: Lord Mandelson said well before the last election that there were too many social engineers in the country and not enough real engineers. Osborne as Chancellor openly said that the UK could not continue to base its future economic growth on debt-fuelled consumer spending on products largely made in China, expressed support for the German system of “mittlestand” (small and medium-sized enterprises), and proudly stated that Britain “is making things again.” He also stated that government had responsibility for providing the skills training necessary for manufacturing and export to grow. Neither has this all been empty rhetoric: to help bridge the technical skills gap in the long term a host of University Technical Colleges have been created, with more planned throughout England, offering this type of education to 15–19 year olds. I would assert that the vast majority of electors are delighted with this development, as is this author: in addition to technical subjects, there is also an emphasis on the sciences and mathematics, so there is a combination of both academic and technical education provided, permitting young people to take a variety of career paths – from skilled factory or laboratory technicians, to engineers, to medical doctors. The UK has been crying out for this for decades. In the short to medium term, hundreds of thousands of apprenticeships in a variety of fields have been created, with the Conservatives promising the introduction of three million more over the course of the next parliament. Cameron gave an interview from a factory floor after the election, where he said that the industrial jobs which his Government intended to create would be well paid, interesting, and have good prospects for advancement. These words could easily have fallen from the lips of a Labour Prime Minister.

Winston Churchill once said that society should be like a broad, strong ladder, which is easy to climb and with a stout safety net to catch those people who fall. Cameron’s words brought this statement back to mind for me.

Let us take the example of a boy or girl who cannot settle down in adolescence to academic education. They decide instead to transfer to a University Technical College at the age of 15, or decide to take up an apprenticeship at the age of 16 or 17 as, for instance, a skilled factory operative or laboratory technician. In their mid-20s/early 30s or even 40s they decide that they want to progress their career further by taking a university degree in, say, engineering or chemistry. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to allow them to do this by taking into account the portfolio of experience that they have acquired “on the job”, and accelerating the process by which they are awarded a degree while allowing them to earn at the same time? I know that this already happens, but it should happen more.

None of this, however, bodes well for Labour. By the simple fact of being in power as part of a Coalition and then a majority Government, the Conservatives have scored a decisive victory over Labour by allowing to claim the territory of these new economic developments as their own: the Tories have firmly planted their flag upon this hill, and, with policies such as a £9+ living wage by the end of the decade, they can convincingly portray themselves as the “Party of the workers.” This territory should have been occupied by Labour. Now the Tories can claim all credit for it.

It is true that Miliband did talk about the importance of technical education, and even vowed to exceed the number of apprenticeships promised by the Tories. But somehow it didn’t ring true: it always looked as if he was playing “catch-up”, and that his heart was not in it. Fundamentally, I believe that he could not conceive of any youngster wishing to do anything else with his/her life other than take up a place at a Russell Group university and embark on a white collar career, just like him. Furthermore, by focusing his election campaign so heavily on anti-austerity (while not providing any convincing alternative) and those on benefits, he left Labour open to the charge of being merely the “Party of the dispossessed.” It is laudable to feel sympathy and compassion for those who are dispossessed and have to have recourse to food banks, and wish to do something positive to help them, but the reality is that many of those who cast their vote for the Conservatives also feel sympathy for their fellow citizens suffering from poverty, and wish to help them (one fallacy that Labour Party members and supporters consistently fall for is that they have some sort of monopoly on compassion).

I stated above that this is going to be a difficult parliament for Labour – The Tories, by the mere fact of being in power with a majority, are now free to dip into Labour’s pre-election manifesto and help themselves to any ideas they choose, repackaging them in blue. This has already happened: the idea of a living wage, as with a minimum wage, was originally a Labour policy. Labour can now be attacked from the left flank as well as the right.

Burnham and Cooper

Given the situation set out above, whoever wins the leadership will have a very difficult task in preparing the Party for the next general election. But this task, in my view, is not impossible. Journalists from almost all the major papers have commented on how dull the leadership race has been and how colourless (Corbyn excepted) the candidates are. I totally disregard all this. I would rather have a capable and competent Party leader who can win the vast centre ground in British politics than a flash, voluble ideologue whose rhetoric is applauded at Glastonbury but turns middle-ground voters cold. I suspect that most British voters feel the same, even though they may be reticent about expressing it publicly.

Andy Burnham has been turned into a sort of joke in some sections of the media, which I think is both highly unfair and inaccurate. While still in his 30s he held the position of Chief Secretary to the Treasury (no easy role), and was a competent Secretary of State for Health in Brown’s Labour Government. He talks, and has written, fluently and convincingly about the need for technical education and with his northern background and accent could perhaps speak to those citizens who, disillusioned with Labour under Miliband, voted UKIP. However, I believe that there is some justice in the jibe that he is “Miliband with a northern accent”: his words on skills for industry and manufacturing still appear to be a feeble attempt to catch up with the Tories in a field where they already have a large head start. In addition, although he comes across as a very decent man, I fear that he would be too timid in terms of formulating bold policy, and too concerned with preserving Party unity to stand up to the excessively ideological wing who really do not care about winning elections. Finally, he made a severe tactical blunder when he stated on television that “the Labour Party always comes first”, leaving himself open to the charge of being someone incapable of winning over floating voters.

Yvette Cooper is also a highly intelligent and capable individual, who, by coincidence, also held the post of Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the Brown Government. While nothing exceptional as a public speaker, she seems to be relatively popular with the Parliamentary Party. However, she carries a lot of uncomfortable baggage with her. By the mere fact of serving in the last Labour Government, and refusing to at least acknowledge the possibility that it may have overspent, it permits accusations that she would adopt the same (now discredited) policy. Being labelled a “Brownite” does her no favours either: it carries echoes of a tired old political feud with little relevance to the ordinary contemporary voter.

Liz Kendall for Leader

Unlike Burnham and Cooper, Kendall has never held ministerial office, and only entered Parliament in 2010. This should not matter one iota, since it means that she is clear from historical baggage. It should also be remembered that neither Cameron nor Osborne came to office with ministerial experience. Kendall came to my attention early in the leadership race as being a clear and articulate speaker, although not an orator, and someone with the necessary inner steel to voice opinions which may not necessarily be well received on the left of the Party, and the candidate best able to face up to political and economic realities.

She has shown a keen willingness to think outside the political box, stating that wealth creation is at least as important as wealth distribution (dividing up a cake is the easy part, making it is far more difficult), and that the quality of education that children receive, whether it be in state academies or state comprehensives, is far more pertinent than ideological purity of the institution where it is delivered.

For me, the most important policy theme on which she spoke was the problem of low productivity in the UK economy. While the present Government talks with smugness about how the British economy is surging ahead of its continental rivals, unless we are careful this could amount to nothing more than a castle built on sand: recent research has demonstrated that French and German workers are in excess of 30 per cent more productive than British workers, while Italian workers are 10 per cent more productive. These are figures which should set alarm bells ringing in both major Parties. This is not a trend which happened overnight, but rather is a product of decades of low investment in technical skills and infrastructure, lack of proper spending by firms and government on research and development, and even just poor management technique. I firmly believe that this is the core issue which a revived Labour Party can make its own, while firmly holding the present Government to their promise of creating the 3 million apprenticeships, and ensuring that places are filled. And that the quality of training is of the highest possible standard.

While I firmly believe in the welfare state, and indeed gained my Master’s Degree in Welfare Law, I maintain that the best social safety net government can provide for citizens is a job, preferably a skilled post with prospects. There is nothing genuinely left-wing about allowing citizens to languish in benefit dependency.

It is my conviction that Kendall, who clearly recognises the importance of creating a business-friendly environment, and who talks the language of business with confidence and ease, is the best person to make this huge issue the territory of the Labour Party. She is habitually labelled a “Blairite”, as if this is some sort of insult: in my view that this is simply a pejorative term for a candidate who is actually capable of winning elections.

Conclusion

I would conclude that for the reasons I have set out, Liz Kendall is the best candidate to lead Labour into the 2020 election. If she is unsuccessful, I can foresee another leadership election taking place before 2020, as the reality of impending defeat looms up before more sensible MPs and Party members. I am not overly despondent about the Party at this moment in time: just look at the unsung talent that it possesses. I could hold up figures like Chukka Umuna and Dan Jarvis to name but a few. However, to be successful, talent must be marshalled and well led. Kendall can provide this for Labour.

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