There seems to be a checklist for Labour leadership hopefuls which all of them are very keen to tick off. When launching a campaign, a candidate must say that their party has just suffered a terrible defeat from which a number of profound lessons must be learned. These lessons all seem to be rather similar, and have led the candidates to say the following things:
Mary Creagh: ‘People felt that Labour didn't understand their aspiration to earn money and provide a better life for their family.’
Chuka Umunna (when he was standing): ‘We need to… focus on what is the new agenda that is going to get a Labour government elected in 2020. That is aspirational…’
Andy Burnham: ‘That is about the aspirations of everyone, speaking to them like we did in 1997.’
Yvette Cooper: ‘I think we have got to have a strong vision for the future and what we can do to help families and also to convince them that we can match their ambitions for the future.’
Liz Kendall: ‘We need to show people that we understand their aspirations and ambitions for the future, and if you look right across England, we did not do enough to appeal to Conservative supporters, and we must.’
Tristram Hunt (not yet declared): Labour must show it is ‘also on the side of families who want to shop at John Lewis, go on holiday and get a new extension’.
A worthwhile and rather obvious point given Nigel Farage’s party came second in many Labour seats in the North. One that Yvette Cooper has perhaps the most authority on, given she toughened up her party’s immigration policy as Shadow Home Secretary and argued for the party to talk more about the issue, too.
This last is the most interesting one. For some of the ‘Blairite’ candidates, this is hardly a surprise. From Yvette Cooper, it’s perhaps unsurprising because she hasn’t expressed a particularly strong view on business in the past, but there was a suspicion she wasn’t on the same page as Ed Miliband. But from Andy Burnham, this is a particularly interesting claim. The Shadow Health Secretary told the Marr show at the weekend:
‘We need to establish economic competence. We need a fiscally responsible approach but an approach that's also pro-business. We've got to rebuild our relationship with the business community.
‘Rachel Reeves, who is backing my campaign...will lead work in this area for me. Re-establishing our reputation on the economy, having a pro-business approach so that we go into that election with a very strong policy.’
Is Burnham just ticking a box here? His language certainly seems rather different to the way in which he’s accustomed to talking about business. Take, for instance, this exchange with Liverpool manufacturer Tony Caldeira on Any Questions last year on the minimum wage. You can listen to the debate, which was accompanied by a rather noisy audience, here, but I’ve transcribed the relevant exchange here as it is rather instructive about how Burnham thinks business should behave:
Caldeira: Well, being a business person and an employer, if the minimum wage was raised to the living wage, a 20 per cent increase, would close both of my companies. Yesterday I made a programme about bringing jobs back from China… [I employ] around 150 people, some in retail, some in manufacturing -
Burnham: But Tony, Tony!
Caldeira: Let me finish. Now, a 20 per cent pay rise for those people makes my businesses uncompetitive. It means I have to put my prices up in the stores that I have and it means I have to put my prices up to the customers, who won’t accept that rise. So, it’s very important that we look after our workers, of course it is, they’re the backbone of the economy and they do so well and the British workers throughout these difficult times have kept the country going. But a 20 per cent pay rise just isn’t realistic in 2014.
Burnham: But Tony, it has to be done carefully. But how about a different way? You say the price has to be passed on to your customers, how about we have a flatter structure within companies, top to bottom, how about we pay for it by people in the middle and the top earning a little bit less, so that we have a bit more fairness all the way down?
Caldeira: But Andy, Andy, you have to understand that in manufacturing, you’re in a global market place, and if you don’t actually compete in that global market place, your company goes bust. You can’t have it both ways, it’s impossible.
Burnham: Aren’t companies kind of better places to work where everyone feels that they’re being treated fairly, aren’t they more productive places?
Caldeira: Of course they are, but if you can’t compete then the companies don’t exist, you can’t have anybody at all to work in the companies if they’ve got salaries that are uncompetitive.
If Burnham is arguing he is ‘pro-business’, either he has changed his mind since this exchange, or he defines pro-business as the government telling companies how much they should pay not just their lowest-ranking staff, but also those in the middle and at the top. The point he makes about companies being happier places when people are treated fairly is one many will recognise, but Caldeira’s politely-made point about the importance of companies being able to exist in order to employ those people in the first place earned him applause from an audience which had previously seemed very hostile to his arguments.
But the Shadow Health Secretary clearly recognises that populist attacks on big business can only take you so far, and his address to the CBI this week is just the next step in his charm offensive. I wonder whether he will make some of the points he made on the Any Questions panel in Southport. If he does, they sound remarkably like Ed Miliband’s predators/producers argument.
That all the Labour leadership contenders have so far basically said the same thing about the reasons the party lost gives at least one clue to why the contest seems to be moving rather quickly at the moment. As one frontbencher explained to me, ‘we know what the problems were and they won’t have changed in two years, so we need to get on with it’.
But the official contest takes a bit longer, anyway, which gives those who will vote on the leader the chance to work out whether the candidates mean what they’ve said so far, or whether they are simply ticking a box.