Here are four things that Liz Kendall has said during the Labour leadership campaign. First, that she would never close a successful school. Second, that the country should always come first, not the party. Third, that the UK should spend at last 2 per cent of GDP in defence. And finally, that Harriet Harman is right — Labour need to understand that the voters did not trust them on welfare, and that regaining that trust is as important as gaining a reputation for economic competence.
To a voter, none of this is particularly controversial. Good schools, patriotism, strong defence and fair welfare — that’s what they want, that’s what government should deliver. None of it is vote winning – but then why should it be? It is surely political common sense that your party should be aligned with the public. You won’t win many extra votes by being there – but you can sure lose them if you fall out with the public.
Liz has done all this — agreeing with the public — in a fresh and clear way. And she has cut through. There is no doubt that her early commitment to defence spending gave the government a jolt. Just as when she forced Philip Hammond to admit on the Marr Show that he wouldn’t commit in advance to supporting the government line on the EU referendum. That set off a chain of reactions in the Tory party – that same afternoon Cameron briefed the press that Cabinet members would be expected to support Yes. A position that was rapidly reversed under backbench pressure.
So, we have a Labour leadership contender who is a fresh face with a clear voice, someone capable of connecting with the public and discomfiting the Tories. What do you think the response of the Labour Party is? Gratitude that there is a real choice and a genuine contest? Wrong. A significant number of Labour figures – many of whom should know better – attack Liz as a Tory. (There is even a ludicrous and laboured Twitter account @LizforToryleader).
Just consider that carefully. The Labour party has just suffered its worst defeat for 80 years — yes, 80 not 18 — and to agree with the voters is to be a Tory. Apparently, Labour didn’t just lose an election, it lost its senses.
If what Liz has said makes her a Tory, think what a true Labour programme would look like by implication. For bad schools and weak defence. Against loving your country and getting people off the dole. This is not even a new set of policies. They were tried in the 80s and early 90s and led Labour to repeated defeat until Tony Blair became leader.
Therein lies the clue to the attacks on Kendall. She is seen as the Blairite candidate (‘Taliban New Labour’ as the spinner for another candidate disgustingly termed Liz). In the shorthand of the modern Labour Party Blairite means right-wing and virtually Tory. Why? Put simply, because he used to win. And winning is the first betrayal.
Even the fact that, under Cameron, the Tories have embraced the National Minimum Wage, gay marriage and healthy and education reform is held against Blair. The evidence that he actually moved the centre ground of UK politics is ignored. The accusation that he was really a Tory is proved by his very electoral success.
So when opponents in the Labour Party call Liz Kendall a Tory what they mean is that she wants Labour to win. And she wants Labour to win in Britain as it actually is — with an electorate who want good schools, a patriotic government, well funded armed forces and welfare focused on those most in need. Labour has lost twice by ignoring the views of the voters. Is it too much, Kendall asks, for Labour to get the message and change. But some in Labour — maybe even too many — prefer the powerlessness of perpetual opposition. No wonder the leadership candidate the Tories are openly supporting is Jeremy Corbyn.
John McTernan is a former chief of staff to Jim Murphy and former director of communications for Julia Gillard.