Comrades, let me be clear – Liz Kendall is not a Tory. Not just in the literal sense, although being a Labour MP and voting against Conservative policies is usually considered fairly solid justification. But nor has she stumbled into the wrong party by mistake.
Contrary to the claims that she wants to “swallow the Conservative manifesto”, the list of Tory policies Kendall supports is pretty short. If we exclude those that were already Labour Party policy before the election, her accusers can only name the implication (denied by my sources in her campaign) that she wouldn’t oppose all new Free Schools; and that she supports lowering the benefit cap. Moreover the other two likely leadership contenders, Andy Burham and Yvette Cooper, have both refused to condemn the benefit cap change. If they won’t oppose regressive welfare reforms while running for Labour Party leader, then they never will.
Now consider the list of Tory policies Kendall hasn’t backed: Scrapping the Human Rights Act; automatically tendering NHS contracts; cutting £12bn from welfare; the current work programme; the enforced sell off of social housing; and the list goes on. Most notably she has come out against their appalling plans for trade unions more strongly than any other leadership candidate bar Jeremy Corbyn. In response she promises online balloting reforms that unions have wanted for years.
In any case, you shouldn’t have to agree with every policy position to acknowledge that, whatever flaws Liz Kendall may have, being a Conservative is not one of them. Yet I can’t open Facebook or Twitter without seeing her labelled an imposter, a Tory in the wrong colour rosette, a member of the Taliban, etc.
The moral disgust implicit within this accusation should not be underestimated. Tories are to the British left what scabs are to union organisers or communists to Senator McCarthy. Nothing drives us more than fighting what we see as their selfish, intolerant and harmful politics. Branding someone a Tory not only means they aren’t one of us, it means they are unpleasant and unethical, and that we’d rather not be in their presence.
If you call Liz Kendall a Tory you smear all those considering supporting her. But far worse, you insult every Labour-Conservative swing voter, voters we desperately need to reach out to.
What saddens me most is that there are sections of our Party where this is considered completely acceptable. These are spaces where any concession to the centre ground is deemed horrifying; any defence of our own centre-left politicians is treated with sneering contempt; and any attempt at electability (even if only a change of rhetoric) is considered a betrayal of Labour values. This viewpoint suggests that we should abandon not only swing voters, but the entire centre-left.
Even amongst more moderate members, I worry that the response to Liz Kendall’s leadership bid shows the election defeat has taught us nothing. You don’t need support the Conservative manifesto to think a proper debate about what Labour got wrong is essential. We have to ask the question of what the Tories offered that we didn’t that convinced enough voters to give them a majority. This can only be hindered by participants using a slur as a substitute for argument.
It is especially objectionable when used to campaign for other leadership candidates. Those backing Jeremy Corbyn, should remember that he is only on the ballot because MPs who’d never vote for him as leader thought the left deserved a voice in the election. Shutting down debate with abuse is deeply hypocritical way to respond (as well as something the unfailing polite Jeremy would never condone). However, there are at least significant policy differences between Corbyn and Kendall. Supporters of Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper are kidding themselves if they think that their candidate is any more than marginally to her left.
Of course, the real reason many object to Kendall so strongly is not her policy positions, but her rhetoric. She is taking an intentionally blunt approach about the scale of the electoral challenge we face and the uncomfortable changes that are required. Centrist-sounding mantras like the need to be “genuinely as passionate about wealth creation as we are about wealth distribution” may not be a typical Labour member’s cup of tea, but the last four decades have shown them to be broadly popular.
By calling Liz Kendall a Tory, we take values that much of the public consider self-evidently true and bequeath them exclusively to our opponents. It’s tantamount to saying: “If you believe in hard work – vote Conservative; If you think successful businesses produce the wealth that sustains public services – vote Conservative; If you believe that people shouldn’t be paid more on benefits than they would be in jobs – vote Conservative.” By all means advocate for what you believe, but please don’t do it like this.