Rarely are politicians floating voters. It’s the nature of the job. Whatever the election we’ll vote for our tribe. It’s true that sometimes we’ll do so more cheerfully and enthusiastically than at other times. But we’ll look down the ballot paper, find the name, put a cross in the box and that’s that.
Internal elections are different. The hunter becomes the hunted. No longer do tribal loyalties save us from the pain and terror of decision-making. We do not even have the party whip to protect us. And the current Labour leadership election has probably made floating voters of more battle-hardened politicos than any other election I can remember.
Over the last few weeks I’ve had the privilege and the pleasure to meet with and to talk with three of the four candidates – Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper have all made the journey to Cardiff Bay and I’m glad that their efforts were appreciated by most of those that they met. Clearly the visit was more fruitful for some than for others but that is the nature of such things.
Yesterday’s hustings event in Cardiff was another opportunity to see all the candidates on the same platform. Most sparkled. I was more impressed with both Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper than I expected to be. And ironically Jeremy Corbyn appeared to be the least interesting and most conservative choice. He said nothing that either surprised me or challenged my thinking.
But all of this is a preamble. Let’s cut to the chase – I’ll be voting for Andy Burnham.
And here’s why.
Deciding how to vote is always a very personal thing. For me there are some questions about the future direction of the Labour Party and our place in Wales and the UK which stand out – the economic challenge is first amongst equals but the future shape of the UK; our place in the EU and the world; and then the inequality that almost defines the UK are all essential issues for me.
Over the course of these conversations and meetings many of the candidates articulated a vision that spoke of a party that is at once more settled than I anticipated but also one which is feeling curiously and strangely out of place with many of the communities we seek to represent. We know that we’ve been beaten not only by the Tories and the SNP but we’re also aware that we’ve lost touch with traditional Labour voters who all too often feel disappointed by today’s Labour, turning to UKIP or turning off. And the answer to that disappointment is not to either chase the Tories or – even worse – UKIP. So what do we do?
Happily there has been widespread agreement that we need a new fair funding structure for Wales to protect our public services and to provide the means to invest in the future for our people; that we need to strengthen and deepen the devolution settlement and then that we need a federal Labour Party which mirrors this new settlement. All of this is a good and positive but its only a start. It creates a basis for a much more fundamental and shared agreement on the shape of the UK than we’ve seen in the past. It also means that we can focus on economic and social policies without the seemingly endless debates about the constitution that we’ve seen for the last twenty years and more.
Andy Burnham stood out for me because he grasped the need to speak with, and to stand up for, communities outside London and the need to rebalance the UK economy. He is also the only candidate that has made me change my mind.
Challenging the Tory economic analysis, which is by now the accepted wisdom of not only the BBC but everyone that I ever meet, remains the only route back to power. No-one will ever elect a government that they do not trust with their family’s future. And if we are not convincing on the economy then we are not convincing on anything. It was refreshing, and frankly a relief, that there has been something close to a consensus between Burnham, Cooper and Kendall on this fundamental political truth. But for me, only Andy went further than this and argued for a fundamental rebalancing of the UK economy and fairness for not only Wales but the north of England and elsewhere as well.
Without this fundamental change to the way in which we do economic policy then we will never be able to invest in some of our poorest communities. The Tories with their Northern Powerhouse also recognise this reality and its time we supported that approach. I am driven by a determination to eradicate the poverty and inequality that disfigures not only Blaenau Gwent but many other of our communities elsewhere. But we will not be able to do that without a new and different approach to rebalancing wealth in the UK. All too often we are able to analyse and describe our problems at great length only to be met with a nervous and uncomfortable silence when it comes to finding the answers to these problems. But the answer must start with the redistribution of wealth and I believe that Andy sees this in a way that other candidates do not.
At the same time as Andy is able to speak to the Party he is also able to speak beyond it. He has rescued Alan Watkins’ description of Labour as the “Peoples’ Party” which had fallen, unhappily in my view, out of fashion, and he has made it real. He made it real by describing how a revitalised Labour Party can help people achieve their ambitions for themselves and their families, whether it is through a new emphasis on education or care for the most vulnerable, he articulates a compelling vision of a different sort of society, challenging inequality and hard-wiring fairness. It is a vision which I believe will be compelling for people throughout the UK.
And he made me change my mind. Generally when choosing between candidates we would seek the candidate who most shares our prejudices. We rarely vote for a candidate who challenges us to think a little harder. Andy is strongly in favour of our membership of the European Union but he also argues for reforms – not the Cameron “Little Englander” approach to reform – but reform which protects wages and jobs and seeks to ensure that a contribution is made before benefits are paid. And it is that focus on reform which has forced me to think a little harder and to change my mind.
And finally, Andy Burnham is personable and friendly and he’s authentic. And this is important. He speaks with authority but also with a conviction which is born of values which speak of our shared experience. He easily passes the “can-you-imagine-him-in-Downing-Street- without-having-a-panic-attack” test whilst also appearing human. Unlike the current Prime Minister he knows which football team he supports and you can imagine him taking the children to the park on a Saturday. At a time when politicians have all too often seemed to be a different species inhabiting the Westminster bubble venturing out to speak only to either friendly journalists or pre-vetted party members he is also a breath of fresh air. I think that people are looking for this authenticity in politics today.
He can lead Labour and he can win for Labour. And that’s why I will be supporting him.