Thursday 10 September 2015

Lessons of the Labour Leadership Campaigns

At last, the curtain falls on the Labour leadership contest. Amid claims of infiltration and ballots 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 MPs open to that kind of fare. She also had something of a coup by getting jolly old Mark Ferguson from LabourList on board, and favourable press coverage came her way. Some running was had when she skewered Andy Burnham at the first official hustings in Nuneaton. Burning him with her "country comes first" riposte after Andy expanded on his partyist credentials, it looked like she may have been a contender. Indeed, had things played out differently, had Jeremy not made the ballot Liz might well have made it as the outsider to the stodgy continuity on offer from Yvette and Andy. 

Those times were peak Liz, alas. The fates had other things in mind. She quickly cast herself the voice of really-existing reality, of the easy conclusions one can make about why Labour lost the election. If the Tories were preferable to the centre left goodies of the 2015 manifesto, ergo we were too left to win. We need to rethink, and that rethinking meant heading further right. Most members had other ideas. While nearly all, for example, would accept that careful handling of public money has to be part of the Labour pitch, it did not at all follow that actively proselytising for more markets and more business involvement in the public sector is the way to do it. In fact, this showed up Liz's poor judgement. Facing a Tory government bent on doing that, the last thing the Labour selectorate wanted to hear was a pitch that thought this was a-okay.

Were Liz to have her time again, could she have forged a different outcome? Possibly. Instead of public sector reform and saying silly things about free schools, Liz should have pushed her genuinely interesting decentralisation agenda. Giving power away could have been her gimmick, and that's what she should have stuck to. Unfortunately for her, she allowed the campaign to be defined by Liz opponents. And many of her comments, particularly on reconfiguring public services showed herself up to be singly unfit for the leadership. Put simply, she didn't understand the party she was trying to lead. There were also the clumsy awful interventions by Tony Blair that killed her chances. 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 after 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 also 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'd 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 coherent. 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 a gyrating 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, 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 furor, 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 sounded 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 advisers 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. 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 arrogate 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 was spot on. Jon Lansman and Simon Fletcher have taken a machine that didn't exist four months ago and broke 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 slapdash 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. Its 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 tell. 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'.


Paul Nightingale said...

I would agree with most of this, although I can't accept the optimistic reading of Cooper's Sky moment. This was her Adele moment - reaching the high notes doesn't mean bellowing. Overall the advantages of a long (if it was that) campaign is that the posturing and lightweight rhetoric (Burnham in particular, Cooper and Kendall also) is exposed for what it is. Think back to the days after the election and all the Blairite nonsense about aspiration - we have moved on a lot since then, for which Corbyn must take the credit. Labour must adopt the same approach to the next four years, bearing in mind that the main opposition will be found in The Guardian and The New Statesman.

Chrisso said...

Great analysis, thanks! From an Andy backer who voted Jezz We Can.

Robin Wilde said...

The rumour I hear is that a lot of people Burnham had lined up to run his leadership campaign jumped ship to Corbyn quite early on. This meant he had to run a campaign with the B-team. That could explain why it fell relatively flat.

John said...

Very informative piece and very good analysis of each candidate's campaign. The most interesting point was towards the end of the JC section where you said "...but the rebuttals cranked up...". Despite the lies and the guilt by association stories, none (or very little) stuck because they were answered and not allowed to grow.

One of the main reasons for all the negative stories about Labour during 2010 to 2015 was the lack of an effective rebuttal unit. If we are to win in 2020 I hope that the first priority of the new leader (hopefully JC) will be to ensure that the finances are in place to fund a fully resourced rebuttal team to ensure that our message is not lost amongst the lies and distortions of a hostile media.

Gary Elsby said...

Stoke-on-Trent didn't want to miss out on showing the rest of the Country how backward the local Labour party actually is and scores heavily in the National media.

It transpires that yet again (here we fucking go)that those whose interests are best served in shenanigans begin their usual tricks of deciding who is and is not holding true 'aims and values' best credited to the Labour Party's best interests.

Yes, this time a former chair of the party is nailed by a former mayor as 'unworthy' but debit his bank by £10 (£3 fee + £7 goodwill donation).

The regional office issues instructions and Andy Burnham is minus a vote.

Stoke Labour is thick, let us not make any mistakes about this.
Gone are the days of opinions, discussions and internal democracy and in place is outside interferences to-and I quote- "stick the boot in".

In days gone by, the rows were worth turning up for and blood spilt was collateral damage gauged by a body count but amazingly, Stoke-on-Trent had a natural Labour lead with votes being weighed and not counted with a view that all arguments were had and a majority position was worth fighting and voting for.

Today, Labour is out and Labour voters and ex-members don't want them back in this form.
Not worth fighting or voting for.

They just don't get it but maybe some do.
Labour will not win power back into this City, not because we don't want Labour to win power back once again, it is just that we won't let you win and we won't let you win because of internal interference by external sources that undermine local democracy.

To listen to a full account please visit radio Stoke around 17:10pm.
The culprit (this time) is a former female mayor.

Gary Elsby said...

On your analysis of what goes for Labour 2015 regarding the Labour leadership, I think you have it pretty much correct.
The natural Labour tendency to do the right and decent thing (except in stoke) appears to have skewed the natural tendency of Parliamentary Labour MPs to be Mother.

Jeremy gets onto the ballot paper because it's only right that the token leftie is given a voice to air their unrealistic 'aims and values'.

The first thing Jeremy should do as leader is enshrine this principle into a 'clause' if only to show how fair Labour really is and not to let the more progressives think it their gift to give.

Jeremy as Leader doesn't make Jeremy a shoo-in as Labour Prime Minister though and this is where it gets exciting.
My guess is that the nuclear arguments will be hostile all over Great Britain and Chinese/Russian soldiers will be argued coming out of every pot hole in the Country. I can see this coming because we've had it all before.
It's going to take a great Leader to smooth these type of argument over to win the day both within the party and across the land but I believe that this is what Jeremy is all about anyway.
NATO is the big one for me and I can't wait for that to play out.

Unknown said...

"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."
I think this pretty much sums up how so many of us see politicians. Cooper saw an opening that might prove advantageous to her claw for power. Against her earlier convictions she grabbed on with both sets of claws and pushed her new found "reversal" of previously hard line stance on refugees, for no other reason that it served a purpose. How politic of her. Now she would have us believe that her previous stance on refugees was not really her? Pull the other one, it's got bells on it. This is the kind of opportunistic grandstanding that many people loathe and despise, it neither speaks of genuine motivation, nor long standing belief or extension of conscience. In truth, it played well in the press, nothing more, nothing less.

asquith said...

My comment there really proves what a thoroughly superior thinker I am.

David Timoney said...

Like Susan, I'm slightly surprised at your admiration for Yvette Cooper's instrumental approach, but I suppose anyone who still employs "gridded" as a verb is a sucker for West-Wingery. Your comment that "She read the shift in public attitudes and rode it, forcing the government to backpedal", rather misses the point that Cameron's back-peddaling was wholly due to public opinion, not the ticking-off he received from the jodphur-clad Yvette.

julian1649 said...

Phil, this is the most trivial and untimely comment to make in the current circs., but ... it's 'arrogate' not 'abrogate' in your context. It's very late.

Phil said...

I wasn't aware Yvette wore jodphurs! Nevertheless it was a moment and she seized it. Was it media coverage that embarrassed Dave? Undoubtedly, but it wasn't helpful for him to see a Labour leadership candidate front it up.

And thanks for the tip, Julian. Late night blog posts have the habit of being unedited. Imagine my mortification yesterday morning when I spotted that somehow the main bulk of the Liz Kendall section has been deleted ...

Mike said...

Great analysis, thanks for posting.

Kevin McCready said...

"Less a series of u-turns, Andy became a dervish." Love it. Hope JC does the first task needed: Proportional Representation for UK. Without it you're kidding yourselves calling yourselves a democracy.