Chuka Umunna dissects what went wrong for Labour. Photo: Getty
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Chuka Umunna calls for Labour to target Conservatives and "aspirational, middle-class voters"

The shadow business secretary gives a clear pitch for the Labour leadership, decrying the party's narrow appeal.

Chuka Umunna, the shadow business secretary and MP for Streatham, is likely to run for the Labour leadership. And he has made a clear pitch in an article for the Observer. It is based on broadening Labour's appeal to "aspirational, middle-class voters" rather than relying on a "core vote" strategy.

He is scathing about who the party has been targeting:

We tried to cobble together a 35% coalition of our core vote, disaffected Lib Dems, Greens and Ukip supporters. The terrible results were the failure of that approach writ large. We need a different, big-tent approach – one in which no one is too rich or poor to be part of our party. Most of all, we need to start taking large numbers of votes directly from the Conservatives.

He blames Labour's defeats in England on the party's impression that it didn't side with "those who are doing well". He even hits out at Labour for allowing the perception that it favoured ideological taxation: "Sometimes we made it sound like we saw taxing people as a good in itself, rather than a means to an end."

It's a pitch that reflects what he told George in a recent interview about the 50 per cent top rate of tax not being a permanent measure.

This appears to be a Blairite pitch, calling for a "big tent" approach, speaking up for the middle classes, championing "aspiration", not pandering to anti-immigration sentiment, and warning the party against being anti-business.

But I think it's more nuanced than that. Umunna for a while has been discussing how much he hates PMQs, and the trappings of traditional Westminster politics. In this piece, he goes further. He recommends parliament leaving the Palace of Westminster and moving into a "new, modern, accessible site fit for purpose". And he calls for an "end to machine politics".

It was the New Labour years that cemented machine politics, by which I take to mean top-down discipline, water-tight whippery, on-message sloganeering, what shadow health minister Jamie Reed calls a "professional, clinical political force".

So it's worth noting that, while Umunna's pitch for the party's direction sounds unashamedly Blairite, he is looking to change the way it does politics. This element might play well with those MPs whose first choice for leader wouldn't be a metropolitan liberal like Umunna (figures like Jamie Reed, Simon Danczuk, Liam Byrne, maybe), but who would like a more straight-talking, authentic party in order to salvage its message to blue collar voters.

UPDATE 10/5/15 11:31

Paul Flynn, cantankerous leftwing firebrand and author of the popular How to be an MP, has thrown his weight behind Umunna. 

As the only MP to vote for Ed Miliband as his fifth choice in the 2010 leadership election, Flynn has always been a critic. In an interview I did with him, he asked:“One Nation – what the f*** does that mean?”

In a new post on his blog, he laments that Labour is "too nice to dump its leaders" and calls Miliband "an electoral liability".

He concludes:

To restore public trust in Labour we need an eloquent, charismatic personality strengthened by intellectual depth and debating skills.

I have made my choice. It's Chuka.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at 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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