The two-man show

It can be hard to believe <strong>James Purnell</strong> and <strong>Ed Balls</strong> are in the sa

As the recession nights of winter 2008 grow longer, thoughts in Westminster turn to parlour games to bring festive cheer in these dark times. The parts are already being cast, for example, in this year's political pantomime. Who'd have thought Speaker Martin would end up as the stage villain, booed and hissed from all sides of the stalls, or that Peter Mandelson would play Prince Charming, breathing life into the comatose body of new Labour with one kiss? A more cruel game is: "Who'll Survive the New Year Reshuffle?" - one that works for all three major parties. But by far the most distracting winter exercise is to imagine who might replace Gordon Brown as leader of the party, should he take the job he surely deserves as chief financial adviser to the world or, alternatively, disappear with the crack of a stage thunderflash through the trapdoor of Britain's economy.

With Labour's recovery now well embedded and discussion of coups from within the cabinet and insurgencies from the back benches at an end, it may seem odd to return to the subject of the Labour succession. But this is not an entirely fan ciful exercise. Even if he wins the next election (which could be called as early as next spring), Brown will not fight another, and leadership speculation will begin in earnest at that point. What's more, Mandelson's return to the cabinet has been viewed in some circles as an implicit snub to the younger generation of ministers jostling for position. They will need to reassert themselves, at some point.

Since the events of the summer, when David Miliband appeared to offer himself up as a potential leadership candidate, there has been no direct challenge to Brown's position. But despite the bitter experience of Labour conference, where the party singularly failed to shift its loyalty away from Brown, Miliband will remain a strong contender. Meanwhile, he is making a point of concentrating on his Foreign Office duties. The domestic politics of the past ten days have demonstrated that there are now only two other players left in the game: James Purnell and Ed Balls.

Whatever view one takes of Purnell's proposals for reform of the welfare state, they are bold and bear the imprimatur of the politician who conceived them. No other politician in the cabinet, with the exception of Balls himself, can claim to have a vision on domestic policy so thoroughly worked out. This includes Gordon Brown. Whether you call it social liberalism, über-Blairism or True New Labour, Purnell has a set of arguments that place him to the right of most people in the cabinet, let alone the party. He would argue that his policies fulfil the true promise of 1997. If Tony Blair expressed regret that he didn't listen to himself more on public-service reform, Purnell is the nearest thing to the keeper of the Blairite flame.

It is a sign of Purnell's increased stature within the government that he was allowed to push through such a challenging set of proposals. The principle of cutting benefits for people who fail to demonstrate that they are actively seeking work is anathema to large sections of the Labour Party, as is the abolition of income support. The increase in private- sector involvement to help deliver the new arrangements is also deeply unpopular. Anti-poverty groups, trade unions and the centre-left campaign group Compass have already expressed hostility to the proposals contained in the Queen's Speech (and outlined in the earlier welfare green paper No One Written Off).

Labour can ill afford to alienate still further its core support, but the government has gambled, as it once did as a matter of course, that it can afford to alienate the left as long as its policy gains the support of the media and the wider public. Labour could well do without another backbench rebellion and, for this reason, it was assumed that the welfare reform package would be kicked into the long grass.

Purnell's victory in getting his legislation into the Queen's Speech shows that the Brown government has regained confidence, but it also demonstrates that the market philosophy that drove much of Labour's reform agenda did not die with Blair. It is impossible to overstate Purnell's personal investment in this welfare package. He has not simply tweaked policies inherited from Peter Hain, his predecessor in the job. Hain would never have countenanced such sweeping reform, especially its punitive measures.

So, to our second candidate for the succession. This week marks the first anniversary of the government's Children's Plan, designed by Ed Balls as a blueprint for the next ten years of education in this country. As with Purnell's welfare reform proposals, this is very much Balls's personal vision. But it is very different both in style and substance. Where Purnell represents continuity, Balls marks a distinct break with Blair ism. Where the early Labour reforms were designed to reinforce a testing and inspection regime that would guarantee standards to parents of children at schools, Balls focused on the learning experience of the school student and, in the words of the Schools Secretary, "put the needs of families, children and young people at the centre of everything we do". To its critics, the Children's Plan is a return to "child-centred learning", a concept ditched in the early Blair years.

The Children's Plan also marked a shift towards renewed faith in state-driven solutions to social problems. The target-driven culture of early new Labour education policy and initiatives such as the literacy and numeracy hour demonstrated that Blair was never shy of using centralised solutions when it suited him. But Balls took this a stage further by introducing state intervention into every aspect of family life - parent support advisers in school, an increase of Children's Centres in schools to bring in advice on health and parenting issues, government guidance on the effect of video games and the influence of advertising on children. The proposals even contained plans for a National Play Strategy, to give guidance on the ways in which young children learn best from playing.

Balls will use the Children's Plan anniversary to raise his already high profile. He has not always been the most assured media performer, but the Schools Secretary notably took the lead in defending the Prime Minister in the broadcast media at the height of the criticism of his premiership during the summer. His reputation has also been enhanced by his handling of the Baby P case and the inquiry that followed. Despite early Tory criticism, Balls acted swiftly and decisively to deal with the failings within Haringey children's services.

Such is the distinctness of their individual visions of the future politics of the left that it is sometimes difficult to believe James Purnell and Ed Balls are in the same party. Indeed, if there were a proportional electoral system in Britain they almost certainly would not be. Asked by the New Statesman to outline how the two world-views could be accommodated as part of the same new Labour ideology, one Downing Street adviser simply said: "Fairness." This is about as useful as saying that both men believe in being nice to small animals. Their divisions are no mere intellectual decoration. They run deep within the Labour family. When it comes to the next election, Labour will not be able to fight on its economic record alone (or perhaps not at all). So it will have to develop a coherent package of proposals on domestic policy to put before the British people. The Energy Secretary, Ed Miliband, remains in charge of the manifesto and happens to be much closer ideologically to Balls than to Purnell. But Miliband's old job at the Cabinet Office was taken by Liam Byrne, who has been given the job of driving public-service reform. Byrne is far more sympathetic to the Purnell side of the argument.

A Balls or Purnell leadership challenge is some way off as yet. They both have serious disadvantages when it comes to a genuine challenge, not least that many backbenchers see them as party apparatchiks parachuted into senior jobs. Neither man has a strong base in the party and both are seen as the creatures of their mentors: Gordon Brown in Balls's case and Tony Blair in Purnell's. Yet both candidates are beginning to develop the bearing of politicians who demand to be taken seriously. If the Prime Minister takes time off to go to a panto over Christmas, he might want to heed that traditional warning: "They're behind you."

This article first appeared in the 15 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The power of speech

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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.