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17 April 2015

Liz Kendall: “Nobody wants to think about what they’ll be like when they’re incredibly old“

The shadow minister for care and older people on the future of old age in Britain, parents versus the state, and what she's most excited about.

By Stephen Bush

When your day job involves care and the elderly, conversations can quickly take a morbid turn. I am at Woodstock Primary School in Leicester, where Labour’s Liz Kendall, the shadow minister for care and older people, has been the local MP for the past five years. The children here are learning basic coding through a video game. One in three of them, Kendall tells me, will live to be 100.

The biggest challenge in health policy, she says, is that “nobody wants to think about what they’ll be like when they’re incredibly old”. Perhaps that is why Kendall has been less prominent on the Labour front benches until recently.

“The good thing about Liz,” one insider tells me, “is that she recognises the NHS has many threats. Jeremy Hunt is one but he’s not the biggest problem.” The worst thing, as a former Labour staffer puts it, “is that no one wants to hear about being infirm or getting old, and after a while it’s just draining”.

Kendall served as a special adviser to Harriet Harman in the first year of Tony Blair’s government and again as an adviser to Patricia Hewitt during Hewitt’s time as health secretary. She now has what one colleague from her time in government describes as “an incredibly difficult challenge – how to succeed as a useful and influential member of the front bench without betraying what she believes in and what we did in government”.

In addition to her spells at the heart of government, Kendall is, as another MP puts it, “a serious adult” who has served as head of both the Ambulance Services Network and the Maternity Alliance. Which might be why her impressive CV and her early promotion to the front bench, just months after being elected as the MP for Leicester West, have only just begun to yield the higher profile many expected her to achieve within the first years of the parliament.

In recent months she has found her voice – not just as an effective advocate on the airwaves for a future Labour government, but as one of the party’s most determined supporters of policies that devolve power to councils and people, rather than hoarding it in Whitehall, as New Labour did all too frequently. In Leicester it quickly becomes clear what all the fuss is about.

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We start, as she did, with the very young. At a children’s centre on the edge of her constituency, I find Kendall up to her knees in glitter and Plasticine. The first year of childhood, she explains afterwards, “is still the thing I’m most excited about”. While Kendall was at the progressive think tank IPPR – where she worked at the same time as a new generation ascended, including Ed Miliband, Yvette Cooper and the rest – her research focused on the earliest years of a child’s development. In Leicester the average child starts school at five, 18 months behind the national benchmark. It was this that inspired her to start thinking about pushing power out of London to local communities.

“The state couldn’t solve that,” she says. “It’s about talking to and working with the parents. It’s the same with crime. You have to start by building trust between police and local people.”

This children’s centre faces the same problems as every other in the UK: cuts in funding, pressure on resources. Yet the biggest problem, Kendall says, is “getting people through the doors”. The trick that worked with the city’s large Asian community was to link the centre with education. Admissions soared. Now she has another idea: to use the centre as a site to register births, getting new parents to come through for the first time, “which we know is the most important time”. She smiles. “Excellent. I’ll talk to the mayor about that tomorrow.”

The best thing she can do as the local MP, she explains, “is bring people together”. We’ve started our day together at a success story; our next stop is altogether grimmer. A drop-in centre at a nearby community hall invites familiar complaints: crime on the housing estate, cuts in services. Bus services, run by a private company, are easy to come by in the leafier parts of town; here they are as unreliable as they are rare. Kendall can advocate – she can write letters to the bus companies, meet with the city’s mayor, harangue the Department for Transport – but in opposition, the best she can do in most cases is listen.

“She has a core of steel,” says Patricia Hewitt, with whom Kendall worked through the battles to introduce the ban on smoking. I wonder what the emotional toll of these trips might be. Surely she’s relieved to be back in Westminster most of the week?

Quite the reverse. “I’m happiest at home,” she says – where she can get people round a table and get problems solved quickly. Not so in Whitehall. “Look at your phone,” she says, “the ability that technology has to transform health and build businesses. Technology has barely touched parliament. And that has to change.”