The most revealing moment in the Labour debate last night came when a questioner asked ‘what qualities do you share with Nicola Sturgeon that could make you as successful as a party leader?’
The unctuous manner in which the question was delivered suggested that being an English Sturgeon was a fine thing to be. No Labour member would think of asking ‘what qualities do you share with David Cameron that could make you as successful as a party leader’ — even though Cameron has just won a majority against the predictions of everyone —including himself.
The unctuous manner in which the men and women who would lead the Labour Party answered said much more – more even than the party’s charitable willingness to let Westminster’s most prominent apologist for Islamist extremism run because it seemed like a nice thing to do.
Not one candidate said they wouldn’t accept the rout in Scotland. That nationalism was a false and narrow creed, and that they would fight it by organising and agitating and winning back the seats Labour lost to the SNP.
Three ducked the nationalist challenge and the fourth, a simpering Andy Burnham, praised Sturgeon as ‘a plain talker’ with strong values, who ‘speaks in a language people understand.’ Sturgeon went into politics, continued the incontinent Burnham, because she ‘saw an unfair country,’ and he had done the same for the same reason.
His praise and Yvette Cooper’s silence was odd because if Labour has given up on Scotland, if it sees Sturgeon as a politician to emulate rather than oppose, then its only plausible leader is Liz Kendall. She is the one candidate, who can speak to middle England, and without Middle England Labour is in deep trouble.
The first past the post system in England now favours the Tories, after years of working against it. As generations of Liberal politicians have found since the Liberal Unionists joined with Lord Salisbury to oppose home rule for Ireland in the 1880s, an alliance with the Tories just leads to Liberal voters deciding that the Tories aren’t so bad after all. Once Liberal constituencies in the south-west are now safe Tory seats. Tory votes are now dispersed elsewhere, giving them more winnable seats. And Tory marginals Labour can win back with ease are now harder to find.
And all this is before Cameron takes his chance to gerrymander constituency boundaries in the Conservative interest. If Labour cannot respond to the new political geography, many of us will be dead before it is back in power.
After overcoming my initial confusion about who Liz Kendall was – I kept muddling her up with Liz Jones and Bridget Kendall – everything she said made sense, if you wanted Labour to break with precedent and actually win an election. The point here is not whether you agree with Kendall or not. Like so many on the ‘business-friendly’ Labour right, she seems oblivious to the fact that the last Labour government was so business friendly it allowed its friends in the City to crash the economy. But that failure matters less than it should. The point surely is that only Kendall has a faint hope of winning back seats in England regardless of whether she is right or wrong in every policy particular.
The argument against her from Cooper and Burnham – and, who knows from Corbyn too, for he could win if enough Conservative activists sign up to back him – ought to be that moving to the right would damn Labour in Scotland. It’s not a killer argument – England is where most of the seats are, after all – but it is certainly a powerful one.
The SNP’s leftish pretensions may be a lie. But they are believed by the Scottish electorate As John Curtice of Strathcylde University said, the Blairite analysis of why Labour lost doesn’t explain Scotland. The defeat there had little to do with Labour opposing independence or being against ‘aspiration’ . It came because the SNP replaced Labour as the party of equality:
‘Where did Labour above all lose in Scotland? Did they lose because they thought the Labour party wasn’t aspirational enough – had gone too far to the left? No. Anybody who is trying to sort out the Labour party now has to take on board that in Scotland … the problem is the party is not sufficiently far to the left in the eyes of voters.’
Yet neither Burnham or Cooper say that. Listening to Labour and many Conservative politicians I sometimes think that they have already partitioned Britain in their heads. They no longer talk to Scots or fight for their best interests. Instead, the Conservatives ignore them, and the left just offers mushy platitudes about SNP politicians being basically OK because they don’t like Tories.
Maybe the political failure is worse than that. Maybe this leadership campaign is so bloodless because subconsciously the party’s leaders are mentally beaten already. For how does Labour appeal to the centre ground without alienating the Left, and not only in Scotland? If it pleases middle-class left-liberals, how does it win back supporters who went to Ukip? If it offers a credible plan for economic growth, how does it appeal to the million or so who voted Green?
The whole business appears hopeless to everyone except Kendall, who at least has a plan. It may not work, but at least she has one, and no one is taking it on.