Continuity Miliband? Photo: Getty Images
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Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham need to show why they're not just more of the same

The same words with a different accent or gender will lead to the same result, warns Labour MP John Woodcock.

There were two moments that made my heart sink yesterday. 

One was Andy Burnham unveiling a measure on housing reminiscent of the Ed Miliband approach which saw Labour lose to a poor Tory government that will continue making Britain even more divided and unequal than it is at present.

The second was Yvette Cooper telling the audience at a hustings in Nottingham there was nothing she was prepared to say that Ed got wrong during his five years in charge. And getting a cheer. There are indeed many things that Ed got right as Labour leader, not least his determination to call out a number of vested interests and challenge the idea that entrenched inequality was a basic and unchangeable facet of modern economies.

As a person, that drive, combined with his warmth, generosity and humour brought him love and respect from Labour activists. But his basic approach failed. It led to our devastating defeat in a general election we should have won. And the causes Labour members hold dear will suffer because we fell so badly short. The scale of Labour's defeat means the leadership election has to deliver real change for the party stand a chance of winning again in 2020. All candidates have so far talked the language of change, but it is critically important that what they actually mean is properly examined.

If those who seek to take his place think the route to victory in the leadership contest is Continuity Miliband with a different accent or gender, or with a higher level of emotional connection, they will consign Labour to another defeat. If that happens, Britain will face another decade of Tory government from here, not just another five years. Under Ed's leadership, Labour too often combined tough left-wing rhetoric with policy proposals that the public simply did not think were credible.

If Andy and Yvette agree with that analysis they are choosing a funny way of showing it. Andy's latest proposal to seize houses owned by private landlords and give them to councils is precisely the kind of measure that the public just rejected at the ballot box as unworkable. Similarly, Yvette has a laudable pledge that Britain should build 300,000 new homes every year to tackle the country's chronic housing shortage. But if the public were not convinced we would fulfil our 2015 manifesto pledge to build 200,000 annually, it is not clear how simply promising an extra 100,000 will change their minds and sweep us to victory.

The reason I am backing Liz Kendall is that so far she is the only candidate who actually sounds like she is genuinely committed to changing our approach to win back those who had no love for the Conservatives, but who voted Tory because they felt we were not up to the job and were not speaking about the things that mattered to their lives. Liz shows an inspiring determination to reclaim fiscal responsibility as a Labour value combined with much greater focus on the huge inequality of life chances that still holds the country back. Her commitment to return Labour to its roots as a party that exists to hand genuine power down to communities and individuals is exactly where we need to be.

Currently, Jeremy Corbyn is getting a great reception at events with Labour members. A round of applause in a hall of activists does not necessarily translate to a majority of votes in the wider selectorate that will choose Labour's next leader. If it does then we can wave goodbye to any hope of electability for the foreseeable future.

Yet Labour will be in equally great peril if Jeremy's presence on the ballot distracts attention from the fact that two of his rivals are currently offering only superficial modifications to the Miliband approach that just consigned us to one of the worst defeats in our history. It is time to step up debate on the genuine choices that face those who will vote in this vitally important leadership election process.

John Woodcock is the Labour & Co-operative MP for Barrow & Furness and a member of Liz Kendall's leadership campaign. 

John Woodcock is the Labour MP for Barrow and Furness.

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In defence of expertise: it’s time to take the heart out of “passionate” politics

What we need is cool logic.

We are living through a bonfire of the experts. During the EU referendum campaign, Michael Gove explained that people had had enough of them. A few weeks later, his fellow Tory MPs took him at his word and chose a relative ingénue to run against Theresa May.

After declaring for Andrea Leadsom in the Tory leadership race, Michael Howard was asked whether it might be a problem that she had never held a position higher than junior minister. Howard, whose long career includes stints as home secretary and opposition leader, demurred: “I don’t think experience is hugely important.”

Even in this jaw-dropping season, that comment caused significant mandibular dislocation. I thought: the next Tory leader will become prime minister at a time of national crisis, faced with some of the UK’s most complex problems since the Second World War. If experience doesn’t matter now, it never does. What does that imply about the job?

Leadsom’s supporters contended that her 25 years in the City were just as valuable as years spent at Westminster. Let’s leave aside the disputed question of whether Leadsom was ever a senior decision-maker (rather than a glorified marketing manager) and ask if success in one field makes it more likely that a person will succeed in another.

Consider Ben Carson, who, despite never having held elected office, contested the Republican presidential nomination. He declared that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery and that Hitler may have been stopped if the German public had been armed. Yet Carson is not stupid. He is an admired neurosurgeon who pioneered a method of separating conjoined twins.

Carson is a lesson in the first rule of expertise: it does not transfer from one field to another. This is why, outside their domain, the most brilliant people can be complete dolts. Nevertheless, we – and they – often assume otherwise. People are all too ready to believe that successful generals or entrepreneurs will be good at governing, even though, more often than not, they turn out to be painfully inept.

The psychologist Ellen Langer had her subjects play a betting game. Cards were drawn at random and the players had to bet on whose card was higher. Each played against a well-dressed, self-assured “dapper” and a shabby, awkward “schnook”. The participants knew that it was a game of chance but they took more risks against the schnook. High confidence in one area (“I’m more socially adept than the schnook”) irrationally spilled over into another (“I’ll draw better cards”).

The experiment points us to another reason why we make poor judgements about competence. We place too much faith in social cues – in what we can see. As voters, we assume that because someone is good at giving a speech or taking part in a debate, they will be good at governing. But public performance is an unreliable indicator of how they would cope with running meetings, reading policy briefs and taking decisions in private. Call it the Boris principle.

This overrating of the visible extends beyond politics. Decades of evidence show that the job interview is a poor predictor of how someone will do in the job. Organisations make better decisions when they rely on objective data such as qualifications, track record and test scores. Interviewers are often swayed by qualities that can be performed.

MPs on the Commons education select committee rejected Amanda Spielman, the government’s choice for the next head of Ofsted, after her appearance before them. The committee didn’t reject her because she was deficient in accomplishments or her grasp of education policy, but because she lacked “passion”. Her answers to the committee were thoughtful and evidence-based. Yet a Labour MP told her she wasn’t sufficiently “evangelical” about school improvement; a Tory asked her to stop using the word “data” so often. Apparently, there is little point in being an expert if you cannot emote.

England’s football team is perennially berated in the media for not being passionate enough. But what it lacks is technique. Shortly before Wales played England in the European Championship, the Welsh striker Gareth Bale suggested that England’s players lacked passion. He knew exactly what he was doing. In the tunnel before kick-off, TV cameras caught the English goalkeeper Joe Hart in a vessel-busting frenzy. On the pitch, Hart allowed Bale to score from an absurdly long range because he was incapable of thinking straight.

I wish there were less passion in politics and more cool logic; less evangelism and more data. Unthinking passion has brought the Labour Party to its knees and threatens to do the same to the country. I find myself hungering for dry analyses and thirsting for bloodless lucidity. I admire, more than ever, those with obscure technical knowledge and the hard-won skills needed to make progress, rather than merely promise it.

Political leadership is not brain surgery but it is a rich and deep domain. An effective political leader needs to be an expert in policy, diplomacy, legislative process and how not to screw up an interview. That is why it’s so hard to do the job well when you have spent most of your time in boardrooms or at anti-war rallies.

If democratic politicians display contempt for expertise, including their own, they can hardly complain if those they aspire to govern decide to do without the lot of them. 

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt