How I voted for the Labour leadership

My reaction to the disastrous result in May was unequivocal. ‘Dear Labour: please do whatever you have to do to win in 2020. I will swallow whatever compromises I must. Just win.’

That was, of course, simplistic. I don’t apologise for being desperate to see the back of the Tories, but I want to see the back of them for a purpose. I want Labour to reduce the inequality of income, wealth, health, housing, lifespan, education and enjoyment of life in Britain today – through redistribution, good public services and supporting people to act themselves. I also want a competitive, prosperous economy, with better jobs for people – well-paid, skilled and fulfilling. I want my government to face checks and balances, to respect the liberties of the citizen and to protect human rights – including (in fact, especially) refugee rights. And I want it to act on the environment, too.

Abroad, I believe in internationalism. I am a passionate pro-European; I support our membership of NATO; I believe in a world governed by rules. But I also suspect a multipolar world will probably be more insecure rather than less, and I want my government to have an answer to what we do if the US ever decides to walk away from our defence. I want a hard-headed approach to Russia and China, but I want to work with them on climate change.

I am a liberal-minded social democrat, in short. But we almost certainly can’t deliver everything I want at once. Resources are limited; a policy can deliver one aim and undermine another; the UK cannot make other governments do what it wants; and change almost always takes time (it’s hard enough to change an office tea-making rota, never mind the NHS). So if Labour disappoints me from time to time, it’s because you can no more govern a country than win an election without trade-offs. Those trade-offs are worth making.

Jeremy Corbyn

It follows that I would prefer any of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall to Jeremy Corbyn. I’ve written about some disagreements I have with his pitch; there are many others. Quite aside from political realism, I have a fundamental problem with referring to members of Hamas as friends, tacitly equating the British Army with the IRA, arguing against allowing democracies to decide their future because Russia dislikes it and many other things besides.

Electorally, the evidence is overwhelming: a Jeremy-led Labour Party would have a headlong collision with the British public. We’re told that only 37% of voters voted Conservative, but 13% voted UKIP. An absolute majority of voters voted for the right. We gained an extra seven points from the Liberal Democrats this time, and still lost. Sections of the left have spent years adding Labour and Lib Dem votes together, pointing out that the total was over 50% and calling it a progressive majority. Well, the social democrats vote Labour now, and the theory has been tested to destruction. There is no automatic progressive majority: there never has been. We cannot win without persuading people who voted for the right.

The TUC’s survey data is clear: people who considered voting Labour, but didn’t in the end, were not generally looking for a more left-wing offering. Their biggest three factors were fears that Labour would spend too much and couldn’t be trusted on the economy, make it too easy for people to live on benefits and be bossed around by the SNP. (Non-voters are not a way around this: the evidence does not suggest they would turn out for radical socialism.) There is little evidence to suggest the public are likely to be swayed by the Corbynite big picture: when asked, respondents preferred ‘concrete plans for sensible changes’ to ‘a big vision for radical change’ by 74% to 15%. The research done for Jon Cruddas depicts an electorate which does want a fairer deal for most people, but wants to know the economy will be OK and the books balanced first.

Scotland is no better an argument for Corbynism. Social attitudes surveys are clear that there is either no skew to the left in actual Scottish attitudes, or only a very small one. The SNP knows this perfectly well and has governed accordingly. ‘Austerity’ was not the driving force behind the SNP surge: voters’ referendum decision was the defining divide, as shown by the British Election Study. If anything, the depth of Labour’s problems in Scotland means we have to reach even deeper into England to win next time. Anyway, even if Labour had held every Scottish seat in 2015, we would still have a Tory majority government.

The British are, mostly, a ‘safety first’ electorate. A very vocal minority would love Jeremy’s pitch – but as the Scottish referendum and the British general election have shown, loud minorities usually lose at the polls. A Corbyn pitch would scare off far more people than it would attract– and the people it would win over are disproportionately in safe Labour seats. With UKIP challenging in the north, the Liberal Democrats making a centre-left pitch under Tim Farron, the SNP dominant in Scotland and the Conservatives pitching to natural Labour voters, we would face disaster.

Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall are all moderate, pragmatic politicians; all of them have acknowledged some of the issues which Labour needs to face up to if it wants to win a general election. I prefer any of them to the self-destructive diversion of being led by Jeremy Corbyn, and gave all of them a preference.

Liz Kendall

Liz Kendall is the only candidate who has been telling the electoral hard truths, facing us with facts we’d rather not – but must – confront.

It is also clear what Labour would do under her leadership. It would make it clear from day one that it took sound finances seriously, identifying what it could and couldn’t pay for. It would prioritise: not lower tuition fees for the middle-classes, but support for the early years. It would be clearly pro-business and in favour of good jobs: and in return, it would support a living wage society and workers’ representation on boards. It would take devolution seriously, rather than simply advocating a larger central state. In short, it would aim to persuade people who could vote Labour, but (usually) voted Conservative or UKIP in 2015, that they can trust us on the economy and the public finances, while delivering social democratic values.

Liz is less experienced than the other two moderate candidates. Her media performances can be excellent, but they have varied. Her instincts are right: her implementation can be mixed. However, only she and Jeremy have been clear and consistent about where they would take the Labour Party.

Yvette Cooper

Yvette Cooper is tough, experienced and competent. When she took Jeremy on, she did a brilliant job – the most forensic exposition of why Jeremy’s policies would be wrong for the country, combined with passion and policies which inspired me. Her focus on families and on childcare could, I believe, appeal to the country in 2015. Her focus on new jobs and technological change could be important. I also believe she would correct many of Ed’s mistakes: his relationship with business, in particular. There is a very powerful case for her as leader.

However, I would have liked more clarity on her strategy for Labour in this parliament. I understand she wants to broaden Labour’s support – no one will argue with that. But her preferred hard choices have, until very recently, been almost invisible. They remain less defined than Liz’s. She mounted a brilliant challenge to Corbynism – but very late: possibly too late. Finally, she remains ambiguous about fiscal policy: and whatever line we take, we need a clear one.

Andy Burnham

Above all, I want to maximise Labour’s chances of victory in 2020. The polling generally points to Andy Burnham as the most appealing candidate when a straight question is asked. He is probably the most immediately personable of the candidates. He’s right that many former Labour voters have lost their emotional connection with the Party. Like Liz, he takes a clearer position on Labour’s fiscal record than Ed.

But I worry about how he’s already put forward a number of unfunded major spending commitments. We lack fiscal credibility: there is little point in saying so, only to commit to billions of pounds’ worth of spending on the back of a commission to work out how to pay for it all. His tone on the EU worried me, though it’s improved recently: point-scoring against the Tories more than making the case for Europe could endanger the referendum result (and make Labour look less credible). His tone on immigration risks sounding like we’re promising things we can’t deliver. I think the British people voted against our message, not just our messenger, in 2015: it is not clear enough to me how Andy would change that message in 2020.

Conclusion

I gave my first preference to Liz, because I think her electoral analysis is right. The British people didn’t trust us to manage the economy or balance the books, and we have to acknowledge that loud and clear. Further, any government would be fiscally constrained right now, so we have to decide what matters most. Actually, that’s always true: ‘the language of priorities is the religion of socialism’. For instance, Liz is right not to prioritise cutting tuition fees and to put money into early years services: you make the most difference at the beginning of childhood, not the end. She has done more than any other candidate to marry social democratic values to a genuine engagement with why we lost, and that deserves support.

I gave my second preference to Yvette, in the full knowledge that she is much more likely to make the final round than Liz. She has not been as clear on strategy, and it took her a long time to take Jeremy on. But when she did, it was passionate, forensic and convincing. I think that many of the areas where she is radical – childcare, in particular – are areas where we can gather widespread support. She would correct many of our 2015 failings and put us in a stronger position in 2020.

I seriously considered putting Andy second on tactical grounds. His speech two weeks ago decided me against it. I believe we have to draw a clear line between moderate Labour and Corbynism: Liz and Yvette are much more likely to do so. But whatever the result, the centre and right of the Labour Party need to engage with many who are considering Jeremy this time: and I understand why Andy is trying to win them over. I gave him my third preference.

I want a credible Labour Party to make Britain more equal, open and tolerant, playing a full and constructive role in Europe and the world. We can only do that in government: so we have to face up to why people rejected us and address their fears. I hope the Labour Party will remember that when we make our choice.

Corbynism (or why Nuneaton has a point)

I think Jeremy Corbyn would be an electoral disaster for the Labour Party from which it would take at least 10, probably 15 and quite possibly 20 years to recover. Too many of his supporters seem either indifferent to electoral success or utterly unaware of what that requires – but they’re right that the rest of us haven’t talked enough about policy. So here are a few of my concerns about his policies.

Jeremy says some things I support but don’t believe the British people will currently buy (a clear defence of higher taxes, though not necessarily his specific ones). There are also some I support and think they might well buy (universal childcare). But much of Corbynism isn’t just unelectable, but ill-thought-through, impractical and downright wrong.

Housing policy

Jeremy is calling for rent controls, with rent levels fixed in relation to earnings. Sounds wonderful: so why doesn’t Shelter buy it?

If you just cap prices in a situation where you haven’t got enough of something and too many people want to buy it, odd things start to happen. In this case, lots more people might sell rather than buy. Granted, we’ve all been saying we want more people to be able to buy homes. But what happens to people who can’t afford a deposit (or the still-uncapped mortgage payments) if the rental stock reduces too rapidly and the total housing supply doesn’t increase fast enough to match?

Will landlords just become more discriminating about people’s characteristics rather than the price they charge (‘No DSS’)? Will they cut back even further on things like repairs? Or will they subdivide properties more and more? More nuanced policies might be a different story (look at the rest of Europe, or the 2015 Labour manifesto), but just legislating a problem of supply and demand out of existence won’t work.

Jeremy is also proposing to extend some kind of ‘right to buy’ to the private sector. First of all, that seems a very odd spending priority for housing: our primary problem is insufficient stock, so why spend however much money on yet more subsidised ownership? (And since people in social housing have lower average incomes than private renters who can afford even a discounted property, isn’t it an odd distributional choice too?)

Second, how on earth would you control the cost? Right to buy may have done great damage, but at least councils actually owned the asset which was being flogged off: here, the state would have to pay the difference to landlords. (I suppose we could theoretically just take people’s property and give it to someone else at an enormous discount. Good luck getting that past the European Court of Human Rights.)

Third, why would you ever rent out a property if you could have it taken off you at any time? Like it or not, plenty of people can’t or don’t want to buy: they need a reliable private rented sector. By all means talk about how to improve it. But treating private rent with such abandon could really harm people who desperately need somewhere to live.

NATO membership

Jeremy has said he wants to leave NATO – our principal defence guarantee. Right now, our ‘if all else fails’ policy is NATO and, via NATO, the US commitment to Europe. We know that Jeremy doesn’t intend to raise defence spending way beyond 2% of GDP – it’s just about the only thing he’d definitely cut. There’s arguably an implicit defence guarantee in the EU treaties, and we have a European Defence Agency to co-operate on procurement, but these are a) pretty vestigial and b) exactly the kinds of things Jeremy won’t want the EU doing (assuming we stay in: see below).

So, given the rapidly rising costs of defence, Corbynism is offering us a radically reduced domestic capability, the abandonment of our key security guarantee and no replacement for either. That is not a defence policy. It’s crossing our fingers and hoping everyone will be nice to us forever.

EU membership

Jeremy has said he wants to fight for ‘a better Europe’, though we still don’t have a definite answer on how he’ll vote in the EU referendum.

Labour should, apparently, set out its own position on reform negotiations – which is fine as far as it goes. But almost nothing on David Cameron’s shopping list is going to appeal to Jeremy – and I doubt anything on Jeremy’s list will appeal to Cameron. The only real question is how much further Cameron will succeed in taking the EU away from Jeremy’s ideal.

If Jeremy might vote No, what would be his alternative? The European Economic Area (most of the free-market regulations without any say)? A Swiss model (slightly fewer regulations, slightly more say, but not a model the rest of Europe will ever offer)? No deal at all (and new tariffs on half our trade)? What makes him think Britain would discover the joys of radical socialism after voting with UKIP? And how does it help climate change negotiations to weaken one of the better players in said negotiations?

Again, this isn’t a policy. It’s a vague statement that the EU should be different, with no route map to change it.

The list goes on. You can’t talk about a ‘wealth tax on massive incomes’, fail to recognise that wealth and income are different things, conflate annual wealth taxes with one-off windfall taxes and expect to be taken seriously. You cannot talk about £50 billion of uncollected tax as though you can easily collect it in one fell swoop and expect anyone to think your sums add up. You cannot describe ‘not reducing our deficit as quickly’ as ‘funding’ free tuition and expect anyone to trust you not to wreck the public finances.

We’re not the Green Party: we’re supposed to be choosing a future Prime Minister. You cannot ask to govern a country with policies like these – not because they’re unelectable, but because they’re unworkable. Nuneaton wouldn’t buy Jeremy’s pitch: but we shouldn’t even be trying to sell it.

A plea for my three countries: Britain, Scotland and England

I have no vote in the referendum on Thursday.  But the second of my countries may be on the verge of divorcing the third and abolishing the first. I make no apology for the emotional parts of this piece: nations are about shared affection and belonging. Here, I want to set down why I so desperately hope Scotland votes No, stays in the shared British family and helps to improve it.

Family and friends

For me, this question is deeply personal.

My father is a Scot.  He went to school in Edinburgh; his parents now live in England.  He fell in love with my mother, an Englishwoman, when they were both studying at Aberdeen.  My sister and I have lived in both Scotland and England.  My mother’s sister also went to Aberdeen to study, and married a Scot.  The marriage ended, but my aunt still lives in northeast Scotland.  One of her children lives in Aberdeen; the other is now in Leamington Spa.  We are all children of the Union.

Countless families all over Britain can tell similar stories.  Three centuries of common endeavour – of living, trading, travelling, fighting, negotiating together – have created them.  Without the Union, there will be fewer.  I’m not saying we’ll suddenly all regard each other as complete strangers and foreigners: but the nations of the UK will be less interested in each other, less involved, less intertwined.  There are about 400,000 people from Ireland in the UK: but there are about 700,000 Scots in England and about 400,000 people from England in Scotland alone.  It isn’t quite the same, and if it leaves Britain, in the long term the links with Scotland won’t be either.

We won’t become as foreign to each other as we are to anywhere else: but we will become more foreign to each other than we were before.  Anglo-Scottish families won’t cease to be families: but fewer Scots and English will intermarry than before.  Our horizons will narrow that little bit, and that would be desperately sad.

Scotland in the Union

Scotland is an extraordinary country.  In population, it is small: about the size of Finland, Denmark or Turkmenistan.  But its impact on the world has been out of all proportion to its size: in fact, I don’t think there is any other nation of five million people which has had anything like its influence.  That’s down to Scottish talent, enterprise, efforts and ingenuity: but the Union also gave a platform for Scotland to project itself to the world.  Scotland has always refused to be a ‘small country’, despite its size.

Scots have been at the forefront of Britain’s story, for better and for worse – as soldiers, diplomats, ministers, migrants and more besides.  To take one example, James Watt’s steam engine played a vital role in the Industrial Revolution – which he commercialised, at least in part, through partnership with the English Matthew Boulton.  Scots have served disproportionately in Britain’s Army for centuries.  There is a reason why Canada has a province called Nova Scotia.  Ships from the Clyde sailed the world.  There have been 10 Scottish Prime Ministers – more than population would suggest.  Scots invented penicillin, the telephone and radar, spread the British and Scottish presence around the world – and helped to shape that world.

In fact, Scotland didn’t just contribute enormously to Britain: in many ways, it created it.  Ideas of Unionism, in the true sense, emerged in Scotland before England.  Back in 1520, John Mair saw it as a way to prevent an English empire – an agreement to allow both to flourish.  James VI and I wanted a full union, but one which took full account of Scotland’s story as well as England’s.  And for all the talk of ‘bought and sold for English gold’ (which referred to Darien and not to the Union, by the way), Scottish negotiators honoured the Scottish unionist tradition.  The Scots Parliament may have ceased: the Kirk Assembly, with its larger place in Scottish life in that time, remained. Scots law, education, religion: these were preserved too.

Scotland, in other words, made Great Britain too. England’s security imperatives were key, of course they were, but the Scottish conception of union was crucial. The result was that 1707 secured the Hanoverian succession and a Parliament at Westminster, but also ensured Scottish distinctiveness. And proud Scottish Unionists would go on to celebrate Bannockburn, the Declaration of Arbroath, the fight against English kings – and see them as the battles that made an agreed Union possible. Britain is an extraordinary Scottish success story.

Britain: a country worth celebrating

For all its faults, Britain is also a country which is worth keeping, and without which the world would be the poorer.

For a start, Britain was always multinational: you could never be British without being something else as well.  Within our duffle-coat state, we have always had at least two legal systems, two national churches, at least two systems of education and more besides.  Devolution in 1999 was, in many ways, a modern variation on a constant theme.

That means that Britishness has never been a narrow identity.  It has always had to coexist with other senses of self.  That is a very precious thing in a world where societies are multicultural, identities are overlapping and integration is indispensable.  Because you’ve always had to be English, Scottish, Welsh or something else as well as British, it’s generally been easier to be British Indian, or Somali, or Chinese, or anything else.  Scottishness is generally inclusive too, of course, but I think the arrival of ethnic diversity in a land where multiple identities had been officially sanctioned for so long helped make it that way.

Secondly, Britain has done a lot of good as well as bad, and has a lot to be proud of.  It isn’t the first home of parliaments, but it has had an exceptionally long run of constitutional government.  That has often been enormously influential in other democracies: and in countries where Britons played oppressor, it’s striking how their own values were eventually used against their rule and helped to inform the successor state.  It is, in fact, a remarkable tribute to the British history of government by consent that this referendum is being held on an agreed basis: look at Catalonia or Quebec if you think that just comes with being a developed democracy.

Scots, English, Welsh and Northern Irish have also fought together, of course.  However you qualify it – and we too easily cast aside the contributions of Canadians, Australians, Irish, Poles, Free French and many others – there was a period when Britain had to lead the fight against fascism, and hold the ring.  It was one of the few democracies to fight the Second World War from beginning to end, and it mobilised an extraordinary amount of its resources to fight that conflict.  Everyone always mentions this, and that’s because it really is something we all share, and something we can be proud of.

Since 1945, Britain’s role has continued to be large – and Scotland, as always, has played a part out of all proportion to its size.  It was a Scottish Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, practising English law, who was vital in making the European Convention on Human Rights happen.  It was a Scottish Chancellor, in a British Labour government, who worked with an English International Development Secretary to create Britain’s Department for International Development.  DfID now has the second largest aid budget, and is arguably the finest international development ministry in the world.  It was a Scottish Foreign Secretary who began to position the UK as one of the most active of anti-death penalty states.  Britain played a major role in making the Arms Trade Treaty possible.

Scottish talent, ingenuity and enterprise has contributed a vast amount to our common home, and we are all better off for it.  A separate Scotland would, of course, play its part in the wider world: but it couldn’t be on the scale of Britain.  We do far more together than either of us would apart – and I don’t believe it would be true to Scotland’s story to turn away from that.

British social democracy

Domestically, we have built a welfare state together.  I don’t think we always realise how unusual the NHS is.  Even Sweden charges patients to visit their GP.  In Britain, healthcare free at point of use is non-negotiable.  No government would challenge it in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, because the social commitment to the principle is absolute.  Far from being a case for Yes, it is a principle we all share as British citizens.  It was a Welshman, Lloyd George, who steered through the People’s Budget and the National Insurance Act 1911; it was a Scotsman, Keir Hardie, who was the first leader of the Labour Party.

We also have a striking belief in the importance of a decent public culture.  We have the finest broadcaster in the world, the BBC, and it was founded by a Scot in 1926.  In communist eastern Europe, people listened to the World Service secretly, for real news rather than propaganda.  The last Labour government also gave us free museums – and again, we have some of the finest in the world.  Free museums aren’t typical: they’re exceptional.  They have, in only 13 years, become another thing we all share as citizens.

I know our welfare state is much more threadbare than it was: I hate what this UK government is doing to it as much as any Yes voter.  But I also know that Britain, a large country with a currency of its own and very slowly-maturing debt, had a choice in 2010.  We had the option of running a looser fiscal policy than we did.   A country of five million, without its own currency, doesn’t necessarily have the same fiscal options and can’t follow that particular path so easily.

More than that, I also know it’s happening to people in Gateshead and Glamorgan, just as much as Glasgow – and in fact, it’s happening more to people in Gateshead, because they don’t have devolution.  And I believe in solidarity: I want to see us standing together for a better Britain – not turning away from each other, and still less entering some kind of race to undercut each other to attract the multinationals. The Salmond vision of corporation tax cuts to beggar the neighbours holds no charms for me. I want the bonds of solidarity widened, not narrowed.

The better option is to support greater devolution to Scotland, including serious fiscal devolution, to allow social democracy to be pursued there while preserving the best principles of the British safety net: social security transfers, smoothing of the spending impact of the economic cycle and guarantees of the ability to provide a common standard of services for common levels of taxation, whatever happens in future.  That would allow Scotland to be a shining example of what social democracy could do – one for the rest of the UK to emulate.

Ideally, in fact, I’d have a federal state, with an elected second chamber to keep Whitehall in check and powerful legislatures within England to counterbalance the pull of the south east.  With Scotland in the UK, that becomes much more likely: and wouldn’t it be appropriate if the country which did so much to create Britain before 1707 did the same in 2014?

Finally …

Without Scotland, Great Britain wouldn’t exist, and the UK would be vastly poorer for it.  The most influential country of five million in the whole world would be leaving the most successful multinational state in history.  Ties of family would weaken.  Individuals would have to make painful choices about who they were, where they came from and how they chose to identify themselves.

It isn’t true that most Scots reject Britishness as an identity.  It might be subsidiary, or used at some times and not others, but it’s there nonetheless.  And that’s true for all the nations of Britain.  We don’t always know exactly how our different layers of identity relate to each other, but then we haven’t needed to.  Vagueness about identity is a British trait – not necessarily a flaw.

Voters in Scotland: rightly, the choice is yours alone. Please don’t make us all choose.  Please don’t turn away from all the things we’ve done, enjoyed, suffered and endured together. Please don’t separate my father’s country from my mother’s.  Please don’t place my English aunt in Scotland and my Scottish grandparents in England on opposite sides of an international border. Please vote No.