The Miliband strategy, with a better striker? Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

We're beginning to see the outlines of the Labour leadership race

Both Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall have reasons to be cheerful after the GMB hustings.

The race is still open, but we’re beginning to understand the candidates a little better at least.

The hustings in front of the parliamentary Labour party didn’t do much to shake up the three-way race between Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper, but it did ensure that it won’t become a four-way. Those left-leaning MPs who could switch from Burnham’s camp to put Jeremy Corbyn left the Attlee Suite feeling more confident in their choice – Burnham’s line that the party had to be careful “not to distance ourselves from the last five years” was approvingly cited by some – which means that there is no real chance that Corbyn will get the numbers he needs to get past the nomination stage.

Mary Creagh, too, is unlikely to get the numbers. It’s not in the interest of the Kendall campaign to have another candidate with an near-identikit message in the race and it’s not in the interests of the Cooper campaign to have another woman on  the ballot paper.

So what do we know about the candidates who will make it? Burnham seems to have abandoned anything beyond a tonal shift from the Miliband leadership, describing the 2015 manifesto as “the best manifesto that I have stood on in four general elections”.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, of course, depends on your perspective. One Burnham supporter, approvingly, told me that the shadow health secretary offers “the same gameplan, but with a better striker”, while one MP from the Cooper camp refers to him as “a Scouse Ed Miliband”. Who’s right? It comes down to the big argument of the leadership election: was it Miliband’s personality, or his programme, that turned off voters?

Burnham is now firmly on the side of personality and tone. He sounds more reassuring than Miliband towards business, looks the part, but, policy-wise, he’s Miliband Mark Two, at least at present. That's better news for Team Burnham than it sounds: he is, far and away, the campaign's best assest and focussing on "Burnham the salesman" isn't a bad place for their campaign to be.

But it will also cheer the Kendall campaign, who will believe they can successfully persuade party members that a bigger change than the man at the top is needed to win. “Don’t forget that Labour members quite liked Ed,” one supporter points out, “I don’t think they’ll be as receptive as the media thinks to the ‘It was all Ed’s fault’ narrative.”

As for their candidate, this was another tricky away fixture after last Saturday’s hustings at the Fabian Society. That she didn’t leave with a flea in her ear shows that she can win, and she burnished her credentials as the most unambiguously pro-immigration candidate out of the three contenders, repeating her “Labour must offer a chance, not a grievance” one-liner. That may be enough of an offer to the party’s “soft left” for them to look over her policy heresies if they think that she’s the candidate best placed to win in 2020.

As for Cooper, her campaign still looks like it has a problem with definition. Her performances are getting better all the time but it’s still a struggle to complete the sentence “I’m voting for Yvette Cooper because...”. 

You can see the outlines of her support base – members who think it’s time for a woman but don’t want a candidate from the party’s right, activists who want Andy Burnham but are uneasy about his Blairite past – but both those groups are likely to be just as turned off by her hostile tone on immigration as they are by Kendall’s heresies and Burnham’s U-Turns.  If Cooper comes second, she ought to win on second preferences. But the real risk is that her core is simply, in her own words, “too narrow” – and instead of pulling off an astonishing victory, she comes a humiliating third place.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

Sky News screengrab
Show Hide image

In her first interview of 2017, I pressed the Prime Minister for Brexit clarity

My week, including running out of cat food, reading Madeleine Thien – oh, and interviewing Theresa May on my show.

As the countdown to going live begins in your ear, there’s always a little rush of adrenalin. Especially when you’re about to launch a new Sunday morning political programme. And especially when you’re about to conduct the Prime Minister’s first interview of 2017. When you hear the words, “Cue Sophy,” there’s a split-second intake of breath – a fleeting moment of anticipation – before you start speaking. Once the show is under way, there’s no time to step back and think; you’re focused on what’s happening right now. But for that brief flicker of time before the camera trained on you goes live, you feel the enormity of what’s happening. 

My new show, Sophy Ridge on Sunday, launched on Sky News this month. After five years as a political correspondent for the channel, I have made the leap into presenting. Having the opportunity to present my own political programme is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s a bit like having your own train set – you can influence what stories you should be following and which people you should be talking to. As with everything in television, however, it’s all about the team, and with Toby Sculthorp, Tom Larkin and Matthew Lavender, I’m lucky enough to have a great one.

 

Mayday, mayday

The show gets off to a fantastic start with an opportunity to interview the Prime Minister. With Theresa May, there are no loose comments – she is a cautious premier who weighs up every word. She doesn’t have the breezy public school confidence of David Cameron and, unlike other politicians I’ve met, you don’t get the sense that she is looking over her shoulder to see if there is someone more important that she should be talking to.

In the interview, she spells out her vision for a “shared society” and talks about her desire to end the stigma around mental health. Despite repeated pressing, she refuses to confirm whether the UK will leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. However, when you consider her commitment to regaining control of immigration and UK borders, it’s very difficult – almost impossible – to see how Britain could remain a member. “Often people talk in terms as if somehow we are leaving the EU but we still want to kind of keep bits of membership of the EU,” she said. “We are leaving. We are coming out. We are not going to be a member of the EU any longer.” Draw your own conclusions.

 

Women on top

This is probably the kind of thing that I should remain demurely quiet about and allow other people to point out on my behalf. Well, screw that. I think it’s fantastic to see the second female prime minister deciding to give her first interview of the New Year to the first woman to front a Sunday morning political show on television. There, I said it.

 

Escaping the bubble

In my view, every journalist should make a New Year’s resolution to get out of London more. The powerful forces that led to the political earthquake of 2016 came from outside the M25. Every week, I’ll be travelling to a different part of the country to listen to people’s concerns so that I can directly put them to the politicians that I interview. This week, it was Boston in Lincolnshire, where the highest proportion of people voted to leave the European Union.

Initially, it was tricky to get people to speak on camera, but in a particularly friendly pub the Bostonians were suddenly much more forthcoming. Remain supporters (a minority, I know) who arrogantly dismiss Leave voters as a bunch of racists should listen to the concerns I heard about a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights. Politicians are often blamed for spending too much time in the “Westminster bubble”, but in my experience journalists are often even worse. Unless we escape the London echo chamber, we’ll have no chance of understanding what happened in 2016 – and what the consequences will be in 2017.

 

A room of one’s own

Last December, I signed a book deal to write the story of women in politics. It’s something I’m passionate about, but I’ll admit that when I pitched the idea to Hachette I had no idea that 2016 would turn out to be quite so busy. Fitting in interviews with leading female politicians and finding the time to write the damn thing hasn’t been easy. Panic-stricken after working flat out during the EU campaign and the historic weeks after, I booked myself into a cottage in Hythe, a lovely little market town on the Kent coast. Holed up for two weeks on my own, feeling a million miles away from the tumultuous Westminster, the words (finally) started pouring on to the page. Right now, I’m enjoying that blissful period between sending in the edited draft and waiting for the first proofs to arrive. It’s nice not to have that nagging guilty feeling that there’s something I ought to be doing . . .

 

It’s all over Mao

I read books to switch off and am no literary snob – I have a particular weakness for trashy crime fiction. This week, I’ve been reading a book that I’m not embarrassed to recommend. Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by the Canadian author Madeleine Thien, tells the haunting story of musicians who suffered during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s also a chilling warning of what happens when anger towards the elite is pushed too far.

 

Political animals

However busy and exhilarating things are at work, my cat, Ned, will always give me a reality check. In the excitement of the first Sophy Ridge on Sunday, I forgot to get him any food. His disappointed look as he sits by his empty bowl brings me crashing back down to earth. A panicked dash to Sainsbury’s follows, the fuel warning light on all the way as I pray I don’t run out of petrol. Suddenly, everything is back to normal.

“Sophy Ridge on Sunday” is on Sky News on Sundays at 10am

Sophy Ridge is a political correspondent for Sky News.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge