I’m going to be putting this blog to sleep for a while. That’s because I’ve decided to support Liz Kendall for Leader of the Labour party, and hopefully one day as Prime Minister.
Five days after a crushing, horrible election defeat, talking about the next Labour leader as a possible Prime Minister sounds like rather dark humour.
The Labour party is in a bigger mess than in my entire adult life. Reversing a New Labour cliché, we just went backwards, not forward.
We lost Scotland en masse. Huge numbers of Labour MPs I hoped to see as Ministers lost their seats. We all know the most familiar names, but the loss that hurt most for me was Gregg McClymont in Cumbernauld. He would have been a fabulous Pensions Minister.
I haven’t even been able to text him to say how sorry I am. I can’t find the right words.
Nor, as Stella Creasy says, is the survival of the party guaranteed. There’s no law that says the Labour party must exist, only the support of the people who choose to vote for us.
Our party faces enormous challenges. We all know that. So it’s tempting to put the case for Liz in terms of how the Labour party will recover the seats we have lost and win new support. How she might win back that ground we just fought over, inch by leafletted inch.
But that’s not why I want her to lead our party.
What makes me want to see Liz as Labour leader isn’t that I think her political judgement is sound, though it is. It’s not that I think she’s the strongest media performer, though she was brilliant on the Sunday Politics. It’s not that she’s got the best chance of winning or the strongest following in the party. Bluntly, right now she doesn’t.
It’s not even that when the Watford-born daughter of a Liberal Democrat councillor and school governor mother talks, I hear a voice capable of challenging the perception of the Labour party across swathes of the country.
No, what made me want to support her is simply that I can imagine her leading the country, and changing it for the better.
In my day job, I’m lucky enough to hear a lot of Labour frontbenchers talk. Not the speeches in parliament or the clips on the radio, but the ever-rolling cycle of campaign groups, industry dinners, fundraisers, policy groups and discussion panels that eat the time of the people supposed to be running the country. Usually, the events are dull, the food bad, the speeches platitudinous. If you’re really lucky, you get someone like Ed Balls, or Maurice Glasman, who aren’t actually capable of being boring.
My experience of frontbench politicians over the years is that they are faced with an impossible challenge. They are supposed to be knowledgable about everything in their subject area, though they’ve probably only been doing the job part-time for a year, with a energetic 23 year old to help out with the tricky bits. They’ve got to be loyal to every aspect of party policy, not just verbally, but in their body language. They’ve got, most of all, not to fuck up while at the same time being totally persuasive.
In response to these lunatic pressures, there are two natural reactions. One is to close down. You become robotic and stiff and stick only to what you know, unless you know you’re in a safe space. The second is to appear all-knowing, perfect in your understanding of the issues and certain of the needs of the future, ready to answer every problem with your seven point plan that cannot be questioned and is perfect in every detail (as long as you don’t look too deep).
Brilliant, funny, charming people turn into empty automata or grinning masks under this pressure to know everything. Sometimes they end up as an empty automaton in a grinning mask, and you’re never quite sure what’s real and what false, what’s meant and what’s meaningless.
That’s the cartoon politician you see on TV. That’s where and why they get formed and defined.
It was at one of these type of events I heard Liz speak. I think she was there because Andy Burnham couldn’t make it. Actually, she didn’t even make a speech. It was a discussion about health and social care with people who knew loads more about the subject than I did. I was there to fill the room, and I expected nothing but an evening of silence broken by the occasional thoughtful nod.
Liz was just somehow different to any other frontbencher I’d seen. It was a private event, so I won’t say what was said, except that it was loyal to a fault. What I can say is that it was a debate that was also inquisitive, challenging, funny, modest and engaging, while at the same time being entirely convincing.
I’d seen Liz on TV before, and thought more or less nothing. She’d just done the lines, at best competently, as a lot of them do. Yet I walked out of that room and immediately texted a friend that if Liz ever ran for leader, I’d support her, no questions asked.
That was a long while back. On Sunday, I had to decide whether to redeem my promise.
Now, no private meeting in some stupid conference room should convince you who to vote for. I know that.
But here’s the thing. Politics is about people. A leader of a party, even more a leader of a country, has to make a million choices a day, based on imperfect information, choices that will annoy and delight, help and hurt. We think we know what the challenges are – the economy, better public services, an aging population, housing, education, inequality but the actual choices a leader will face are a mystery.
There are brilliant people with policies on all these things. But a large part of whether a decision gets made, and if it is made, actually gets done, is the person who has to make the decision, and their attitude to the world around them.
That’s why I get annoyed when political types sneer at voters who choose governments based on their attitude to the people at the top, not ideology. Actually, your view of a leader and their team is a really smart way of judging how they’ll react to the unknown.
The same was true for me that night. I saw someone I just knew could be Prime Minister. Who should be Prime Minister. If I’m right, hopefully more of you will see that quality in her over the coming weeks.
So the question for me was whether I meant what I said back when it didn’t matter at all.
This is where the actual politics comes back in.
I’ve accused the party of being in our comfort zone often enough over the last five years. Truth is though, it wasn’t just the party in a comfort zone, it was me as well.
It was so bloody easy to sit back and wait for things to go wrong. To snipe a little bit when things were tough. To give grudging praise when they worked.
That also meant not having to really confront the things New Labour got wrong. Because of course New Labour and Tony Blair got stuff wrong, and we’ve got to do things differently now.
Do we have to find new answers for early years education and inequality among the very young? Absolutely.
Do we have to find a better deal for people stuck in private renting? Of course.
Do we need to change, as Ed Miliband said again and again, the fact that most people didn’t benefit from either the boom or the crash?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
The world has changed. We have to change. All of us.
So from people like me, two things are required.
The first is a bit of humility and a willingness to listen to other people properly. There are aspects to all these challenges I don’t even understand, let alone can fit into some post-Blairite ideological box. They’re important and difficult and need more than one approach to fix.
The same is true of how we do politics. I’ve no idea how engagement and communication has changed in the digital age. I’ve a few ideas on how we reach out to people who think politics is pointless, but so do lots of other people and they might be right.
The second is the willingness to act on what you believe.
You know, maybe Liz won’t win. Maybe she’ll not even get the nominations (Though frankly the PLP would have to be mad not to have her on the ballot paper, and I’d say the same about all the declared candidates). Maybe some idiot like me will screw up her campaign and she ends up getting beat by Andy Burnham on transfers. Well, fine.
Because although everyone in the party, me included, is shitting all over Ed Miliband and his team, the one thing they got right, the one thing I admire them for above all else, is that they worked and worked and worked for what they thought was right. They were totally wrong that the electorate wanted it, but they were right to try, because otherwise what’s the point?
I look at Liz, and I think she’s right about the big issues for the country. I think she’s got the right attitude to the future. I think she has the hunger for new ideas and new approaches to politics we desperately need. I think she’s got both the humility and steel to be a good leader.
Ultimately, I want her to be Prime Minister.
So I’m going to try my best to help make that happen. Because otherwise, maybe it might not.
Perhaps I’ll look an idiot in five weeks or five years. Fine. Fair enough. But right now, I can see someone who might just be brilliant, and I’ve got a chance to help her.
So I’m going to.