At last, the curtain falls on the Labour leadership contest. Amid claims of infiltration andballots not turning up, the most tumultuous leadership election in the party’s history ends with the rank outsider the likely winner, and a membership in equal parts enthused, stunned, and resigned to a most unexpected fate. The result is due on Saturday, but now seems about the right time to cast an eye over the campaigns.
Liz Kendall was the first out of the gate. On the Sunday following the election, she appeared on the Sunday Politics and told Brillo of her intention to run. She made the noises that defined the the early moments of the Labour leadership contest. You know the record, it has had repeat play on Radio Kendall ever since. We were insufficiently pro-business, we weren’t trusted with the public monies, and we need public sector reform went the oh-so familiar lyrics. With four people trying to occupy this ground – Chuka, Tristram, and Mary – it was Liz’s early start that defined the Progress pitch and helped hoover up the limited number of singly unfit for the role.
There were also the clumsy awful interventions by Tony Blair that killed her chances. Were Liz to have her time again, she should have prioritised her genuinely interesting ideas around decentralisation. If she must indulge the public sector reform obsession of continuity Blairism, talking about more markets while the Tories are embarking on privatisations and outsourcings was hardly a capital idea. She could have talked about mutuals and/or public participation instead, giving her programme a coherence that was otherwise missing. To have allowed herself be depicted as the Tory-lite candidate was catastrophic, and anyone from that wing of the party contesting future leadership elections should take note.
As for Andy Burnham, oh dear. During the last five years Andy’s stock rose high. He emerged better known from the 2010 contest and used his time to accumulate political capital thanks to his vocal opposition to the Tories’ marketisation of the NHS, and won plaudits for his role in the Hillsborough inquiry and, well, for just seeming like a nice bloke. Andy had momentum and though not universally popular in the party – particularly among his erstwhile friends in Progress – he was the nearest we had to being a darling-of-the-activists. Lefties liked him. A lot of Labour right wingers liked him too. Alas, four months after he declared his figure is much diminished. Less a rising star, Andy turned out to be nothing more than a Chinese lantern. How was this possible?
Looking at his PLP nominations, the support declaring for him reached across the party. He had Charlie Falconer, friend of Blair. He had Rachel Reeves, Brownite. He had princes-to-be Dan Jarvis and Keir Starmer. Continuity Ed people like Lucy Powell. And soft lefties such as Lisa Nandy. Before Jeremy announced, a lot of his support-to-be were on Andy’s team. Andy was very much the ‘unity’ candidate. But unfortunately, this was his undoing. If you want to speak for everyone the temptation to be all things to all people is next to overwhelming, and sadly for Andy that’s the route he went down.
Rather than making the political weather, he was buffeted by it. First, in the opening stages, and very much against the soft left image he’d cultivated in the previous parliament, he basically followed the script written by Liz. But with added right wingery. For instance, proving how in touch he was with everyday folk, we heard about the man on the doorstep worried because no one but him in his workplace spoke English. The implication being he could to all the Liz-type things, but also reach out to UKIP voters by giving their concerns a sympathetic ear. In other words, doing little to challenge the toxic rhetoric and attitudes toward workers from overseas and refugees. He also started saying “tough” things about social security, mirroring the harsh attitudes of his unofficial deputy running mate, Caroline Flint.
Then hafter making one volte face, he pirouetted and did another, and then another and another. Less a series of u-turns, Andy became a dervish. The 2015 manifesto was the best he’d ever stood on, we were told. But it was pretty crap. Labour’s spending on hospitals and schools had nothing to do with the crisis. Yet, echoing the Tories, we still spent far too much on hospitals and schools.
Then the unnecessary welfare reform debacle, in which tough-talking Andy discovered a conscience and found that he opposed Tory policies, would have voted against it had he been leader, but stuck with shadcab collective responsibility and abstained as per Harriet Harman’s instruction. Andy’s explanation – that it was improper that he should have broken that responsibility, and had he done so or resigned to vote no then the contest would have descended into civil war was, in my opinion, a fair analysis – but this was one gyration too many. This is the point his campaign collapsed.
Since that moment, Andy has been a side show and one that was pretty sad to witness. He courted Corbynistas and attacked their flights of fancy. He said he’s work in Jeremy’s shadcab, but would resign if something happened he didn’t agree with. He said no legal challenges to the leadership result, while his team have been the ones kicking up the biggest fuss about Trot and Tory entryists.
Again, it could have been different. Leadership requires consistency. That’s not the same as pigheadedness, as per Liz, but it does mean being coherence. And Andy has been anything but. It’s as if his brain was scooped out at the start of the campaign, and he’s been run by a couple of work experience spads who one day read Telegraph columnists, the next #JezWeCan, and formulated campaigning strategy accordingly. Whoever has been in charge of this shambles should never be let near positions of influence again.
If I was piloting Andy, I would have had my key messages and stuck with them. I’d have also made sure those messages were congruent with the image cultivated during the previous five years. This doesn’t mean not saying things about the deficit and spending, or about social security and immigration, but in such a way that those policies join up. Andy should have made more weather. His national care service policy idea, for example, is excellent. But he’s fluffed it. Sorry Andy, I do like you, but in this contest you got found out.
Then to Yvette Cooper, who I ended up voting for. Not that this was a positive vote, it was driven by serious strategic reservations I have of Jeremy. However, what Yvette had throughout the contest was a certain consistency. One might say this was a desire to say little and win that way, much like the relatively anonymous Big Brother housemate who always makes it to the final night. She started off like Liz and Andy, but very quickly moved to stand up for the record of the last Labour government. However, as the contest wore on her silence proved really grating.
Yes, we heard about the experience. Yes, we know Yvette knows economics and things. But the campaign was already well underway until her big policy reveal – free universal childcare and more support for careworkers and caregivers – was dusted off. We started hearing a few things about the need to invest more in science. However, silence did pay dividends in one respect. Yvette emerged unscathed from the Welfare Bill furore, despite also following the party whip.
Then came the Cooper comeback. In the final few weeks of the campaign, she found her mojo. By the time she visited the Stokies there were a few more policies and Yvette had started speaking with some passion and belief. She started sounding like she meant it. And there were two key events in the final weeks that gave her a boost.
The first was her very public campaign against the government’s stance on refugees. For her shadcab colleagues who’d previously seen her take a hard line on refugees, this may have come as a surprise. Be that as it may she actually showed some leadership and stuck her neck out, which is more than any other leading mainstream Labour figure can say – especially on a matter that has seen Labour pander, pander, and pander some more. She read the shift in public attitudes and rode it, forcing the government to backpedal.
The second was the way she went for Jeremy in last week’s Sky hustings. As it happens, her argument was wrong. People’s Quantitative Easing isn’t “PFI on steroids” for the simple reason that government debt from monies printed by the Bank of England can be rolled over indefinitely (who, after all, owns the Bank?). Nor does it have to be inflationary, depending on the circumstances. Nevertheless, while it didn’t go down with the Twitterati who had tuned in she was adjudged by the cognoscenti to have been the only contender to have laid a glove on Jeremy. Small wonder she shouldered Andy out the way and is now second favourite.
Yet, as per the others, Yvette could have done so much better. She left it very late in the day to define herself and therefore be the recipient of ABC votes. Who thought staying silent was a good idea should join Andy’s advisors in the dole queue. Also, Yvette didn’t make enough of herself. As one of the few trained economists in the shadcab, she was very well placed to have made the economic case against austerity as Ed Balls did – to everyone’s surprise – back in 2010. She didn’t, and we now know someone else did. What her campaign needed was more “late Yvette” and less “early Yvette”. As soon as Jeremy started getting traction, she could have been straight in with a critique and her own alternative as opposed to falling back on dire warnings. If the mood music is right, she’s may come to rue her campaign’s reticence.
And then there’s Jeremy Corbyn. Putting aside Corbynmania, putting aside the tens of thousands who’ve listened to him speak at almost 100 rallies, and putting aside his utter dominance of both the leadership contest and the media, his campaign’s been fine and dandy. No, in fact, his campaign has been brilliant. Considering that his opponents abrogate to themselves the title of election-winning specialists, Jeremy’s leadership campaign has been the best organised I’ve ever seen. When you think about it, what it has accomplished is something of a miracle. The pitch has been very policy heavy and, actually, quite technocratic. There is a lot to like here, and what it did was give the anti-austerity message some proper substance and heft. Married to this was a hopeful message and a vision of a better life that activated large numbers of people outside the purview of established politics.
Organisationally, the Corbyn campaign has been spot on. Simon Fletcher and the team have taken a machine that didn’t exist four months ago and have broken the mould of British politics. Everything was properly gridded. Jeremy got his main policy statements out near the beginning of the campaign, and has not been pushed into any panicky announcements to try and match the changing mood.
The organisation of the volunteer base, facilitated by supportive trade unions, has been professional – none of the splapdash nonsense usually characteristic of the Labour left. Team Jez were, after all, the only ones who put the link to sign up three quid supporters on their website. And there were even proper scripts and prompts as the campaign wore on.
It’s only weakness were Jeremy’s foibles, of comments and associations of the past resurfacing. There was some hesitancy earlier on on how to bat away these sorts of stories, but the rebuttals cranked up and most of it appears to have had no effect on Jeremy’s momentum. The other point of potential embarrassment, the overenthusiastic zealotry of the social media following, was successfully kept at arm’s length – helped by the dignified way Jeremy presented himself throughout the campaign as well as outright refusal to do dirty tricks. And by keeping it about ideas, the other candidates found it very difficult to respond.
Are there things that could have been done differently? Looking from the outside in, it’s hard to see. Perhaps Jeremy could have said People’s QE wasn’t a policy for all circumstances, but that’s the only wrong foot I can see. And compared to the blunders and, sometimes, downright idiocy shown by the others, this is very small beer indeed. Team Jez haven’t given the text book example of how to do a campaign, they’ve ripped up the old one and completely rewritten a new edition. Whatever the results on Saturday, it’s what they have accomplished that will be studied and pored over by generations of politicos, activists, and academics. The others, I’m afraid to say, should be filed under ‘not what to do’.
This article first appeared at All that is Solid
Image credit: Sky News