The heir to Blair? (The Independent)

In one of the more arresting answers to reporters during her Westminster press lunch on Thursday, Liz Kendall remarked that what “most people want” was “somewhere to live, something to do, something to look forward to and someone to love”. The main point of interest at the time was her afterthought, admitting politicians couldn’t do much about the last of these, and that she in particular was not one to “give advice” about it – a jocular, if poignant, reference to the apparently amicable break-up some months ago of her relationship with the actor Greg Davies.

But the original observation was, to put it mildly, unusual phraseology from a British politician. It may have been subconsciously influenced by a speech on “Love and Work” by Labour’s Jon Cruddas, whose pre-election policy review Kendall co-operated with closely, and had hoped to see playing a much more central role in election planning under Ed Miliband than it eventually did. Echoing William Morris’s view that these were the things that mattered most, Cruddas – also unusually – had been emphasising the importance of families and individual relationships to public policy. But her remark is an (almost) direct lift from one by the working-class New Zealand Labour leader Norman Kirk, who came from an extremely poor family, left school at 13 and died in office as prime minister – after pulling his country’s troops out of Vietnam – in 1974.

To the Labour MP John Woodcock, a friend and serious Kendall fan, prominent in the campaign to make her the new Labour leader, it also illustrates her choice of accessible language. “Her ability to connect is a joy to behold,” he says. This week Woodcock recalled a two-day visit she made to his Barrow constituency in which she’d done a meeting on women in public life, had visited the shipyard to talk about Britain’s nuclear deterrent, was a guest on the local hospital radio – her choice of record, appropriately for a politician whose cheerfulness is routinely remarked on, was Pharrell Williams’s “Happy” – and wound up at a meeting of a group of women carers. “Hearing these sad stories with such empathy, she was brilliant,” he says. “I thought ‘She’s got it’.”

Cheerfulness and empathy are not enough to make a future party leader, of course. Kendall, 43, has a very different biography from Norman Kirk. But born and bred in Hertfordshire, she has the advantage of a background which is almost central casting for aspirational swing-voter England. Her mother, a primary school teacher, and her father, who worked at the Bank of England while taking qualifying exams after leaving school at 16 (and is a Bob Dylan fan), sent her to the notably successful Watford Girls Grammar school, whose motto – good for an opposition contemplating an electoral mountain in 2020 – is Sperate parati (“having prepared, hope”).

She took a first in history at Cambridge, and had worked at the centre-left think tank IPPR and as a special adviser to both Harriet Harman and Patricia Hewitt before becoming an MP in 2010. She is a habitual runner and an enthusiastic dancer – she has confessed to being a teenage Wham! fan but since moved on to Dr Dre and Public Enemy. She was appointed on merit by Ed Miliband to the job of shadow minister for care and older people in 2011.

Among all her fiercely revisionist pronouncements on Thursday (on defence, on free schools, on wealth creation) one of her less noticed bits of taboo breaking – which will make the public sector unions suspicious – was her evangelism for the idea that “public services should revolve around the people who use them – not the other way round”.

In her shadow ministerial job, she in fact carved out some sharply “modernising” territory of her own, in favour of public service reform, patient choice and discouraging public services from “entrenching dependency” by “doing things to or for people rather than with them”. With some deftness she managed to remain on good terms with her immediate boss Andy Burnham, even though his own approach was more traditional.

On Thursday, Kendall suggested the term “Blairite” was obsolete . But it is bound to stick, if only because her denunciation of the “core vote” strategy and her underlying message that Labour will need to occupy more centre ground to win back the English Tory-Labour marginals. (She was sensibly cautious about Scotland, refraining from easy answers to the enormity of the SNP’s victory, but rejected what many see as the crypto-nationalist solution of forming a separate Scottish Labour Party.) But she has been helped by the unexpectedly comprehensive nature of the defeat on what she calls a “traditional” platform.

One prominent supporter, the experienced Europe shadow minister Pat McFadden, praises her “bravery” and “clarity” and insists that she is right that elections can only be won from the centre-left and not the left tout court. Agreeing that coming from Watford, and representing Leicester, she is well placed for the England fightback, he adds. “That’s not why I’m voting for her. I’m voting for her because she’s got the right politics. We’re not electing a symbol. We’re electing a leader.”

One question she has not yet been asked is about Iraq, arguably the most negative aspect of the Blair legacy. She is likely to say that clearly the invasion was wrong in hindsight in the absence of WMD, but that there was also a catastrophic failure of post-war reconstruction. What also differentiates her, however, from Miliband – and perhaps her rivals – is a more open emphasis on security and foreign affairs, opening up a potential new line of attack on David Cameron’s post-Iraq isolationism which she rejects. Hence not only the passion for making an immediate case for EU membership, but also the bold attempt to outflank him by insisting that Britain should stick to spending up to the recommended Nato minimum of 2 per cent of GDP.

The criticisms that can be made of Kendall – beside her obvious lack of cabinet experience – is that she may not – at least not yet – have gone beyond the Blairite strategy of recapturing centre ground to take more account of how the world has changed since 1997. She may be right, for example, to deride the “fantasy” that the country has moved left. But it’s hard to believe that popular attitudes have been totally unchanged by the banking crash. Tony Blair himself has suggested that Miliband was right to put the struggle against inequality – which Kendall didn’t much talk about on Thursday – high on his agenda. And while she has clearly thought about the “left behind” white working class attracted to Ukip, she has yet to articulate a vision of how to win it back.

But Kendall certainly can’t be written off. More than 54 per cent of party members – and 53 per cent of Labour MPs – voted for David Miliband rather than his brother in 2010. Under the reformed system which Ed Miliband has, to his great credit, bequeathed, this could be important for her.

A key test once she becomes more exposed will be the opinion polls on whom the public favours most as Labour leader. For Labour Party members have probably not lost their ability to swallow ideological doubts to choose a winner. As for Kendall being a Blairite, McFadden says he thinks her attitude will be “call me what you like. I want to get Labour back to a winning position”.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: 11 June 1971, Abbots Langley, Hertfordshire.

Family: Father a banker and mother a primary school teacher. An eight-year relationship with the comedian Greg Davies ended before the election.

Education: Watford Grammar School for Girls. History BA from Queen’s College, Cambridge.

Career: Adviser to Labour ministers; various child and health roles at charities and think tanks. Leicester West MP since 2010; shadow care minister 2011-present.

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