Labour still don’t have a clue

The opposition can keep telling themselves that Cameron is a closet Thatcherite – but it won’t make

What's going to stop Labour from winning the next election is that, six years in, they still don't know who and what they're fighting. And since the next election could be a lot sooner than 2015, this is the gift that keeps on giving for the right. Before Ed Miliband can convince the public about himself, he needs to be convincing about David Cameron – and that's never going to happen for as long as the left keep kidding only themselves that the Tory leader is a closet Thatcherite.

It's hard to see on the face of it what the evidence is for this piece of wishful groupthink. Even with a crypto-Keynesian like Ed Balls as shadow chancellor rather than the more Blairite figure of Alan Johnson, it's the scale of the economic consensus that ought to stagger us and not the, in truth, marginal cross-party divisions, which are hyped up for despatch box effect.

But then what else is there? Whatever the Guardian wistfully hopes about right-wing economics leading to heroin-dealing nurses, selling mush like the "big society" as a threat to voters is surely a fantasy too far. If even Tory MPs who approvingly spout "big society" platitudes can't put any details on the warm feelings, it's improbable that Tom Baldwin's going to.

At every turn the government is exactly what Cameron hoped it would be – liberal. It's liberal in its social mores, it's at least as windily green as Labour, and it's pro-European. Many on the Tory right would say it's unarguably been so ever since Cameron broke his "cast-iron guarantee" that there would be a referendum on Lisbon. Yet like it or not, topped up by 50 Lib Dem MPs, the coalition also inescapably seems to people uninterested in politics to be that bit more liberal than a Tory-only government would have looked and sounded. Insisting that the government is not what the public plainly thinks it is, is a strategy Labour can try, but why's it going to work?

You can't even hope for a Thatcherite tone from this regime. There hasn't yet been a fight that Cameron hasn't run away from: from an abject refusal to milk-snatch to being pistol-whipped by Mumsnet, this Prime Minister will limbo under any tabloid headline held in front of him. So all Labour is doing now is repeating Steve Hilton's Demon Eyes mistake. Telling voters what they know to be untrue – "this man is a ravenous right-wing ideologue" – makes Labour seem incredible, and not in the good way.

Instead of crying wolf and inevitably being caught out for doing so, why not take a leaf out of the Clinton playbook? If Labour wants to exacerbate Cameron's undoubted party management problems, why not triangulate? Why not explicitly offer him support for his most obviously progressive and liberal measures? That's the way to push the Tory right over the edge. And as things stand, it's only they who are going to unseat Cameron any time soon.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.