Shadow health secretary and Labour leadership candidate Andy Burnham speaks during the general election campaign. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Andy Burnham's centrist pitch shows he wants to defy Tory caricature

By adopting a pro-business message and admitting the deficit was too high,  the Labour leadership candidate has frustrated hopes he would turn left. 

When the Labour leadership race began, the Tories immediately identified Andy Burnham as the candidate they wanted to win. The hope was that he would merely be "Miliband with a prettier face" or even tilt leftwards. But Burnham's first speech of the campaign, delivered to business leaders at Ernst & Young, showed that he may not be the Labour leader of their dreams. In the symbolic location of the City of London, the shadow health secretary declared that the party had too often failed to tell business that "we value what you do – creating jobs and wealth." Entrepreneurs, he said, "will be as much our heroes as the nurse or the teacher", countering the impression of a party concerned with the public sector alone. 

In a passage reminiscent of the Tories' mantra that strong public services depend on a strong economy, he added: "Labour must always champion wealth creation, and show we understand that, if we want world-class public services, and if we want high-skill, high-wage jobs, then we must wholeheartedly support the businesses that create the revenue to pay for them." It was a signal that he would never deliver a speech in the mould of Miliband's 2011 "predators and producers" address.

He combined this attempt to reset Labour's relations with business with an admission that the deficit was too high in the years before the crash - answering the spending question that haunted Miliband in the final leaders' TV event. He criticised the party for entering the election "with business and the public unclear on how Labour will balance the books, or when we will do so." In an attempt to pre-empt Tory criticism of his past role as chief secretary of the Treasury from 2007-08, he noted that they had described the spending settlement he delivered as "tough". 

Burnham's policy-rich speech - he also promised to introduce a UCAS-style system for apprenticeships and urged the government to hold the EU referendum by autumn 2016 - also saw him define his personal history and character (something Miliband struggled to do). He was, he said, "the comprehensive lad who went to Cambridge and then into the cabinet". Miliband similarly attended a comprehensive but his north London upbringing and Marxist father meant he failed to avoid being framed as an effete metropolitan. Burnham, by contrast, was able to humbly present himself as "the son of a telephone engineer and a GP receptionist who moved heaven and earth to make sure my brothers and I would be the first in our family to go to university". 

His centrist pitch will make it harder for his Labour opponents to define him as the candidate of the left (a challenge for Yvette Cooper, who seeks to offer a third way between Burnham and the "Blairite" Liz Kendall) and for the Tories to do so. He may have socialist instincts on the NHS ("the public NHS is what works") and free schools (opposing their establishment in areas with surplus place) but then so do most of the public. 

Burnham's greatest hindrance remains his record of service in the last Labour government. While he will have to constantly rebut Tory attacks on his past, the post-2010 Kendall would be able to avoid them altogether. But by demonstrating early on that he has learned from the failure of Labour's economic message he has strengthened his candidacy. The real test, should he be elected, would be sustaining his centrist strategy. Just as successive Tory opposition leaders promised to modernise their party but tilted rightwards under pressure, so Burnham would face pressure to head left if his approach failed to deliver early results. But by signalling that he wants to "rebuild the broad coalition of voters that put us into power in 1997" he has, for now, defied Tory caricature. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Nicola Sturgeon and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Nicola Sturgeon's SNP, like Tony Blair's New Labour, is heading for a crash landing

The fall of Tony Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and a fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through radical policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s methodology was so successful and so convincing that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness. Arguably, a form of New Labour won in 2010 and 2015.

But, as they say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh, when you make, as you will, bad decisions, when the list of enemies grows long, when you’ve just had your time, you’ll fall like all the rest – only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair and of Labour should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. Sunday night’s debate between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of what’s coming – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. This is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’etre is independence; everything else - literally everything else - is just another brick to build the path. And so education reform cannot be either radical or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions or parents. Bricks, you see. Same with the NHS and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature - is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while in reality body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: "it’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs".

But voters show signs of wearying of the predictable blame game and waking up to the time-limited strategy of show-over-substance. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren – things aren’t just not improving, they’re getting worse. The SNP is not keeping its part of the deal.

So, during Sunday night’s debate it was Nicola Sturgeon, not Ruth Davidson or Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs. It will have been a strange experience for a woman more used to public adulation and a clamour for selfies. There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use a food bank (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster): ‘I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish Government]. You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS. Don’t come on your announced visits, come in in the middle of any day to any ward, any A&E department and see what we’re up against.’ She delivered the evening’s killer line: ‘Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you… in this election?’

The list of reasonable criticisms is growing and will grow further. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off, while in England the fee-charging regime has seen the number of students coming from poorer families climb. Ms Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nats’ constitution explicitly prohibits its elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. While total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing. Allowing public self-criticism, far from being a sign of weakness, is a necessary vent for inner tensions and a sign to voters that a political party is something more than a cult.

That ‘cult’ word has long dogged the SNP and its supporters. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning bright, but it has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when it is unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage at times). Claire Austin, the nurse who criticised the First Minister on Sunday, has found herself at its mercy. Immediately after the debate, the Nats briefed (wrongly) that she was the wife of a Tory councilor. The SNP branch in Stirling said Tebbitishly that if she was having to use food banks "maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?" Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s Home Affairs spokesperson, was forced to publicly apologise for spreading "Twitter rumours" about Ms Austin.

The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but we now see it hasn’t gone away - it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated, they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party: it’s the behaviour of a cult.

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly aggravate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and plenty of signs that things will get worse. How, then, do you arrest your fall?

The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

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