Newsnight Labour leadership debate: political heroes

A most unlikely set of political heroes was offered by the candidates last night. What does this tel

With the leadership candidates asked for a Labour political hero during the Newsnight debate, we were at least spared their tributes to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. But what an unlikely set of personal nominations we were offered. Each could be seen as somewhat dissonant with the candidate's past career or campaign message.

Most authentic may have been David Miliband's nomination of Tony Crosland, postwar Labour's greatest social-democratic intellectual voice. It was a good choice -- I think Crosland would be my (somewhat pointy-headed) choice, too -- though the shadow foreign secretary seemed irked with it and to want to withdraw it once the four other candidates had chosen actual as well as lost leaders of the party.

Yet Miliband's claim that Crosland's untimely death in 1977 robbed Labour of a great leader doesn't stand up. Crosland had his chance in 1976 and would surely not have been a candidate in 1980, nor surely could he ever have hoped to lead the party successfully by then if he had been elected. (See the end of the post for more.)

Perhaps least plausible was Ed Balls's choice of Tony Blair, citing his victory in three elections, though he was perhaps not Balls's first choice for leader in either 1997 or 2005. Balls has previously pitched for Nye Bevan.

Ed Miliband played it very safe indeed with Labour's secular saint Clement Attlee, citing the achievements of the 1945-51 government.

Yet surely the efficient managerialism of Attlee, beyond his collegiality in cabinet, provides quite the opposite model of political leadership from the inspirational "movement politics" to which Ed Miliband's campaign aspires. Attlee did not campaign in poetry; indeed, given his famously monosyllabic nature, he might even have questioned the need for any more prose than necessary when governing.

For all of the achievements of the Attlee administration's first term, he entirely failed to renew an exhausted government after 1948. Labour ran in 1950 and 1951 on an empty "consolidation" manifesto, pledging little beyond the nationalisation of sugar. The central point of Ed Miliband's campaign on values and vision is surely to make once again, after New Labour, precisely the critique put by Dick Crossman in New Fabian Essays in 1952: that Labour had "lost its way not only because it lacked maps of the new country it is crossing, but because it thinks maps unnecessary for experienced travellers".

Diane Abbott's nomination of John Smith saw the Campaign Group candidate connect to the centre-right voice most associated with the "soul of the party". That is a smart strategy as part of Abbott's broad and mainstream Labour pitch. I suspect that she may have been less supportive of Smith's short leadership from the right of the party at the time.

By my calculation, Bryan Gould must have won votes from roughly 60 of Labour's 271 MPs in the 1992 leadership election (doing much better in the Parliamentary Labour Party, where he lost 4-1, than in the other voting sections in that most one-sided contest). Most of the left, such as Ken Livingstone, backed Gould over Smith. I don't have a record of which side Abbott was on. No doubt the newspapers could check.

Andy Burnham, too, cited John Smith having pledged also to give Labour back its soul, though he offered little reason for his choice. I suspect that Burnham, who was a researcher for Tessa Jowell from 1994-97, would have been instinctively sympathetic to the embryonic New Labour critique of Smith's cautious consolidation strategy, characterised as "one more heave".

So no mention of Keir Hardie or Ellen Wilkinson, Nye Bevan or Hugh Gaitskell, Barbara Castle or Bernie Grant, Neil Kinnock or Robin Cook. The Labour premiers Ramsay MacDonald, Harold Wilson and Gordon Brown are, for different reasons, very much outside candidates, though there must be less obvious contenders, too.

So, perhaps somebody should make a note to ask the leadership candidates again for their political heroes in October.

Crosland had his chance in 1976, when he received a paltry 17 votes (5 per cent) out of a Parliamentary Party of 314 Labour MPs, finishing sixth out of six candidates, albeit in Labour's most glittering field, with Denis Healey fifth (30 votes), Tony Benn fourth (with 37), Roy Jenkins third (56) and Callaghan second on the first ballot (84) behind Michael Foot (on 90), with Callaghan defeating Foot on the third ballot.

Crosland was famously displeased that he could not even persuade his ambitious acolyte Roy Hattersley to vote for him in the 1976 contest:

When Wilson unexpectedly stepped down as prime minister in 1976, it seemed natural that Hattersley would back Jenkins or Tony Crosland, his close friend and mentor, for the leadership. But he was told by Callaghan that neither of the two right-wingers could hold the party together. Moreover, Callaghan added, they were both going to lose. And those who wanted preferment under a Callaghan administration would have to vote for him (Callaghan).

Hattersley telephoned his friend Crosland to explain his predicament. He pledged eternal loyalty -- and then broke the news that he would be supporting Callaghan. He offered to explain why. Crosland, unsurprisingly, told him to "fuck off". When Callaghan won, he rewarded Hattersley with his first cabinet post, as secretary for prices and consumer protection.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Special subscription offer: Get 12 issues for £12 plus a free copy of Andy Beckett's "When the Lights Went Out".

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Getty.
Show Hide image

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.