“I didn't see any point in pretending”: profile of Labour leadership candidate Liz Kendall

At the beginning of the year, even some of Labour's activists didn't know who she was. In just a few months, she could be the party's leader. But who exactly is Liz Kendall?

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If Ed Miliband has a heartland, this is it: Fabian New Year Conference, the January before Labour’s thumping defeat. Home of what Michael Frayn dubbed “the Herbivores”: “the do-gooders, the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian and the Observer, the signers of petitions, the backbone of the BBC”. Increasingly, too, the backbone of the Labour party.

They love Miliband here – later, he will receive a standing ovation –  but on that same morning, they’re listening to someone they truly adore: Polly Toynbee. Toynbee is in full flow, attacking the Blairites, the bankers, and who knows what else. Something in that morning’s Daily Mail has caught her eye. “Hands up here if anyone has read the Daily Mail today?”

Attending journalists shuffle uneasily in their seats, as do one or two members of the parliamentary Labour party. Just one hand goes up.

“Who’s that?” one of the attending activists hisses to their neighbour.

“I think it’s Liz Kendall.”

“Who’s Liz Kendall?”

Liz Kendall talks to local residents in Redcar. Photo: Getty Images

A month or so later, I spend a day in Leicester, where Kendall has been the MP since 2010, to find out. We’re scheduled to meet at a SureStart centre on the edge of her constituency. I’m a little late, and arrive to find her surrounded by toddlers and playing with Plasticine. Perhaps concerned that I’ll feel left out, she splits hers with me.

She’s disarmingly honest, telling me that she was pleased to be invited on to the frontbench, but that the early years, rather than her brief – which focuses on the elderly – is still the area “I’m really interested in”. We talk about “this project I did at the IPPR”, which, she says, was the job that had the biggest impact on her. It’s that year when the “big inequalities” are set in stone. In her own constituency, the average pupil starts compulsory education 15 months behind the national standard.

It was at the IPPR where she first met Patricia Hewitt, who has had almost as significant an impact on her career as An Equal Start did on her thinking. Hewitt, who had left her job as Neil Kinnock’s press secretary to help set up the fledging think tank, was introduced to Kendall by an old friend, Anna Coote. “Anna has always had an incredible eye for talent,” Hewitt tells me, “And she talent-spotted Liz.”

Later, when Hewitt was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, she would remember Coote’s find and recruit Kendall as her special adviser. John Woodcock, now the MP for Barrow & Furness and a Kendall ally, and also a special advisor at the same time, remembers: “I used to find Liz a fairly intimidating figure.” Not, he adds, “because of anything she did. She very clearly knew her stuff and was sort of ferociously effective.”

Hewitt recalls how Kendall worked to turn “a very narrow proposal” that women who returned from maternity leave be given the right to request shorter working hours from Labour’s manifesto into “something more ambitious: fathers as well as mothers, all parents of children up to five years old” were given the right to request shorter working hours. “It became a far more radical policy than business, initially, wanted,” Hewitt says.

A stint as a special adviser might give you “a first-class introduction in how government works” in the words of one, but, for potential staffers, it can signal a tough boss. One tells BuzzFeed’s Emily Ashton that former spads are “the worst people to work for because they’ve got less sympathy”. Another staffer tells me that they are “not a fan of Liz at all – she treats staff badly”. 

Others disagree. One says: “She’s fair. She’s just got high standards. You’ve got to be able to keep up.”

She sets exacting standards for herself, too. The SureStart centre’s manager tells us about the different ways that we learn. Afterwards, she says to me: “I wish I’d known what type of learner I was as a child – I could have done better.” Kendall is the first person in her family to go university and has a first from Cambridge in History. Before becoming a special adviser she was director of one charity, the Maternity Alliance. Before she became an MP she was head of another, the Ambulance Services Network.

It’s hard to see how not knowing what type of learner she is has held her back. But I can see how “keeping up” might not be as easy as it sounds.

Leicester, where Kendall both lives and works as the MP. Photo: Getty Images

Our next stop is a drop-in meeting with local residents in Beaumont Leys. Over the next hour, I lose any idea I might have had that being an MP in a safe seat is an easy job. Of the 20 or more problems her constituents have, most are insoluble without a change of government. A few are angry – but the grinding sadness is the hard part. 

One common complaint in particular stands out: Leicester’s bus companies have an obligation to the local council to serve the entire city, but run skeleton services in many of the less affluent parts of the city. An elderly couple find themselves increasingly stuck at home due to the problem.

Kendall can’t drive, and, like the couple she speaks to, is dependent on the city’s erratic bus service. The reality is that she has no more power to fix the problem than they do, although she agrees to write a letter. For the first time on the day we spend together, she switches from local MP to Labour advocate: “What we need, and what I’m working for, is a Labour government that can give the council the powers it needs over transport, like they have in London. That’s what I think whenever I’m there: we need this at home.“

One bus immediately follows another. A common sight in London. Less so in Leicester. Photo: Getty Images

Where is an MP’s home? Is it in London, or their constituency? It depends on who you ask. One Conservative MP from Surrey says that he is, “like his constituents: a suburban commuter”. 

“You fall in love with your constituency, you really do,” Hewitt, who was also Kendall’s predecessor in Leicester West, says. “And you never, you know, it never leaves your heart. But I don’t live in Leicester – I always had a home there but our family home has always been in London.”

But for Kendall, Leicester, not London, is home: a converted former button factory where she watches foreign language dramas like Spiral, The Bridge, Inspector Montalbano “but not Borgen, I tend not to watch political programmes”.

Kim Bodnia and Sofia Helin, stars of the Bridge, on set. Photo: Filmlance International/Caroline Romare

Hewitt didn’t engineer Kendall’s succession, describing any MP who attempts to do so as “very foolish”. The two did discuss Kendall’s hopes of becoming an MP. “I asked her where she was born,” Hewitt recalls, “Thinking maybe there was somewhere she could go and chase a safe Labour seat and she said 'near Watford'.”

The village of Abbots Langley not being particularly inspiring territory for aspirant Labour MPs, Kendall travelled further afield. In Hewitt’s words, she,  “simply went and lived in Leicester, in the constituency, and got to know everybody. She talked to the voters and the party members and won their support”.

“Pat opened a door for her,” says one Blairite, “In that she knew the seat would become vacant, no-one could say she had no connection at all. But it hurt her almost as much as it helped her. It was a terrible time for people from our bit of the party. Liz [Lloyd, who worked for Tony Blair] had already been beaten by someone awful.”

“It was really tough, personally and financially,” says Hewitt of Kendall’s selection. The contest was “not easy, both in terms of the margin and the things that were said”, in the words of one insider. Being associated with Hewitt, who was, in her own words, “absolutely a public service reformer and a Blairite moderniser”, a double-edged sword. In the end, Kendall won – by just six votes. “And now, of course, her home is in Leicester,” says Hewitt, “She’s very different from me in lots of ways.”

Patricia Hewitt addresses Labour party conference in 2006. Photo: Getty Images

But just how different? Isn’t she, just like Hewitt, a public service reformer and a Blairite moderniser? I ask her exactly that over lunch in Yesim, a Turkish restaurant opposite her constituency office.

“That’s not how it feels. That feels like a debate from another time, this idea that if you believe public services need to change and you talk about the reform it must be about the private sector . . . it doesn’t feel very relevant to what we’re going through, or to the conversations I have in the PLP [parliamentary Labour party].

"In our last phase in government we had no time at all for local government. We were too distrustful. Now they’re the people who are making things happen.”

Local government is close to Kendall’s soul. Her father was a Liberal councillor and when we talk about another Watford native from the parliamentary Labour party, Steve Reed, a former council leader, her eyes light up. “He is one of the people who has actually gone out and done it.” (Reed will later become one of the first MPs to endorse her bid for the leadership.)

“People are forged in the fire of their first political experience,” she says, “So the people who lived through the last government, that’s how they see it. But we’re living through the expenses scandal, what’s happened in Scotland with the SNP and with Ukip here. There’s a much more fundamental distrust with politicians.

"There’s the idea that you can’t make change, that the system is bust. That’s what’s forging our thinking. It’s a different framework to 1997. Things have moved on and there’s a new generation arguing that the way you make change in the economy or in public services is in a very different way from before.”

Post-Blairite bona fides thus proved, she undoes it all with a question of her own.

“Look, do you want hummus?”

I do. I’m from the New Statesman after all.

We talk about An Equal Start again.

“The big impact [on life chances] is how much the mum and the dad are involved, how they play with their child,” she says, “The state couldn’t solve that. It was about talking to and working with the parents. And that’s true for most of the challenges we’ve got as a country. You can’t sort out crime unless locals have a good relationship with the police. You can’t tackle health challenges unless people have an active role in their own health.”

But what she doesn’t accept is the idea that the state doesn’t also have a role to play. She picks out one example from her time working for Hewitt: “the ban on smoking in public places”.

Lights out: punters stub out their cigarettes the day before the smoking ban comes into force. Photo: Getty Images

“We had to deal with some tough things at the DTI,” Hewitt says. “Including deal with the collapse of Jaguar Rover during the 2005 election which we knew was going to happen and we planned for but God it was tough. But Health was just two years of unremitting pressure.”

The smoking ban was the least of their worries, although that wasn’t easy, either. “I was in a different place to John Reid [her predecessor at the Department of Health], which led to a very difficult series of conversations of arguments. That said, they were exactly the same arguments as were being mirrored on every radio talk-in across the country.”

There were other problems, too. “We had financial crisis in the NHS. We had terrifying headlines about thousands of nurses being made redundant and hospitals being closed everywhere. That didn’t reflect the reality, but nonetheless, it scared people.”

“For all of us, for the special advisers, for my private secretaries, the key officials as well as me: you discover what you’re made of,” says Hewitt. “You either crack under that kind of pressure or you may or may not thrive on it but you absolutely step up to the mark. And she [Kendall] stepped up to the mark.”

“As an ex-smoker myself, anything that helps you stop smoking is brilliant,” Kendall says. “But helping people prevent themselves getting the long term problems, that can’t be regulated.”

"The thing about the NHS is, when it started, you died at 65 on average and people were dying through accidents and infectious diseases. Now it's different. The big health issues are diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, still, in fact. One in three children born today will live to be 100 years old. And if people are living for longer, they need keep fitter and healthier for longer. Now you need support from the NHS, help from care services, business, too, actually. But we’re going to have to play a role too."

Talking to Kendall about her brief for any length of time has a way of making you feel guilty. I find myself wondering if I ought to go to the gym more (trans: at all) or cut out red meat.

Later that day, we visit Woodstock Primary, where the children are being taught how to code. I tell that it feels strange to be sat among all these children, wondering which ones will make it to the 22nd Century. 

That's the biggest problem of all, she says: "Nobody wants to think about what they'll be like when they're incredibly old."Perhaps that’s why, despite being one of just three members of the 2010 intake to be brought onto the frontbench in Ed Miliband’s reshuffle – the other two were Chuka Umunna and Rachel Reeves – Kendall remained just outside the shadow cabinet proper for the next five years.

Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary. Photo: Getty Images

But it wasn't the only reason. Politics, not just policy, meant she had a lower profile than she might have otherwise carved out for herself. "Liz had an incredibly difficult challenge,” one former colleague from her time as a special adviser recalls. “How to succeed as a useful and influential member of the frontbench without betraying what she believes in and what we did in government.”

“It would have been the easiest thing in the world to just say ‘Blair? Excuse me? Who?’ Plenty of people were doing that. Pretend she’d never been there, say she’d changed her mind,” one insider observes. “But she’s not built that way.”

She talked to colleagues and friends about it, including Hewitt, who says, “she has, I think, real integrity, and a core of steel.”

Another insider is less flattering. “You call it integrity, I call it obstinacy. If she’d played the game better she could have been shadow education secretary instead of Tristram.”

On the way to our next stop – New College, a secondary school in the constituency, once the subject of infamy, but now undergoing a physical and educational renaissance – I ask her about the Daily Mail.

“I read all the papers. I didn’t really see the point in pretending I hadn’t.”

And that’s a fairly major reason why she isn’t yet in the shadow cabinet and might not win the leadership election. 

The future?. Photo: Getty Images

“Liz, you know, she’s Middle Britain,” says Hewitt. “She’s extraordinarly bright, yes, very political, highly accomplished, all of that. But she comes from an ordinary background, she grew up near Watford. You remember what we used to call Worcester Woman [the demographic that made the difference between victory and defeat in 1992]? She’s Watford Woman.”

“That was part of Tony Blair’s great strength,” Hewitt continues, “People felt differently about Labour when Blair was elected as leader because they didn’t think someone like Tony Blair would ever be Labour leader. I’m not putting Liz into a Blairite box because all those labels are of the past. But she absolutely has that quality.”

Putting her “in a Blairite box” is certainly what others will do. She’s not going to be the main choice of the parliamentary party or the trade unions, and will, as she did in Leicester West five years ago, put her fate in the hands of party members.

"You know, she's not stupid," says one ally. "She knows she's not the favourite. But she's going to say what she thinks even if she does lose."

Will it work? It took two landslides, four defeats and a heart attack for Labour to elect Tony Blair. It doesn’t feel, to me at least, as if they are ready for Kendall. But whatever happens: when she puts her hand up next year, no one's going to ask who Liz Kendall is. 

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Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.