Speaking to the Operation Black Vote audience, she had plunged herself into hot water by declaring that the plight of the white working class was a key priority. Some in the audience were aghast. It was politically clumsy or refreshingly blunt, depending on how you see her candidacy.
But that was not the reason for Kendall’s apparent despair. Neither were the polls showing she is trailing in last place in a race that enters its final straight on Friday, when the ballot papers are sent out. The problem was that she was running late to get down to her parents’ house in Sussex and was now wracking her brains for an excuse to give to her mother. Explaining that she was campaigning for a shot at becoming prime minister wouldn’t cut it.
To Kendall, family matters enormously, and it is key to understanding the brand of centrist, pro-business, pro-aspiration politics she represents on one side of a leadership battle that has torn Labour apart and seen Kendall on the right and Jeremy Corbyn on the left attacked as enemies within.
The former thinktank policy wonk, ministerial special adviser and charity boss is the daughter of committed Methodists: Susan, a teacher-turned-school governor, and Richard, who became a Bank of England accountant after leaving school at 16. Home for the first 18 years of her life was a modest three-bedroom house in Abbotts Langley, a small village in the home counties near Watford, along a belt of M25 commuter constituencies – many of which Labour won in 1997 but has since lost and needs to regain to win back power.
Her family’s story of steady self-improvement through hard work and modest aspiration underpins her attraction to the principles of so-called Blue Labour: opposed to over-reliance on the welfare state, business-friendly and in favour of decentralising power. Richard was a Lib Dem councillor before switching to Labour before the 1997 election.
Kendall told the Guardian: “You do your best, you work hard for yourself, for your family and others. That sense of responsibility to others was very strong.”
There were modest family holidays to North Wales and Suffolk in her father’s second-hand cars. She attended Watford grammar school for girls, became the head girl and won a place at Queen’s College, Cambridge, both positions she says she resisted, fancying herself as a rebel. But she complied and thrived, and got a first in history. Kendall had no interest in formal politics at university, where she said she “just wanted to have fun”.
Beth Kilcoyne, a screenwriter and close friend, said: “She wasn’t a swot. I remember her sunbathing on the college roof, listening to Wham!, reading difficult philosophy and explaining it to us really simply.”
But, she recalled, Kendall had a real passion for social justice and Neil Kinnock’s 1992 general election defeat devastated her.
When Kendall left Cambridge, she joined the centre-left IPPR thinktank, set up to pioneer Labour’s new thinking on public service reform. After researching genetics in the NHS, she advised Harriet Harman, then the shadow health secretary. She left to lead a charity, Maternity Alliance, before Patricia Hewitt selected her as a special adviser in 2001 and she worked on extending maternity leave pay. She again left politics and became the director of the Ambulance Service Network, before finally entering the Commons in 2010.
Now, just five years into her parliamentary career, Kendall is making her most upwardly mobile move yet – spearheading a reformist group in the Blairite tradition to wrest Labour back to the centre ground and away from Ed Miliband’s legacy, as she puts it, of “railing against the strong”.
Kendall gives off plenty to suggest aspirational middle-class drive. She wears a smart Marc Jacobs watch, carries a funky green tote handbag and shops at John Lewis, Whistles and the upscale cologne and candle shop Jo Malone. Her favourite place to eat out is La Poule au Pot, a French restaurant in Belgravia, and she picks up bottles of rosé wine from Oddbins for her summer drinking. She shares evenings with a close-knit group of college friends including an environmentalist, a journalist, a former banker and a health worker. Until recently, she was going out with the comedian Greg Davies.
Kendall said she wants Labour to be “the party for people who want a great shot at life” – just like she has had.
Kendall and Corbyn are the two opposite poles of the Labour battle. Where he has the unions and the grassroots anti-war and pro-Palestine campaign groups, her financial backers include Waheed Alli, the multimillionaire media entrepreneur and Labour peer; Tim Allan, Tony Blair’s former PR adviser and now the chairman of Portland Communications; and the businessman and Labour peer Clive Hollick. Hollick advises US and UK investment banks and has shareholdings in 37 companies ranging from the private hospital firm HCA to the drinks company Diageo. Allan’s clients through Portland include the governments of Kazakhstan, Qatar and Rwanda, the arms manufacturer BAE Systems, the US pharmaceutical conglomerate Pfizer and the bookmaker William Hill.
Her campaign is far from a mass movement. Where Corbyn has raised more than £100,000 from small donations and has been addressing packed rallies of more than 1,000 people, Kendall has amassed £18,000 from small donations and has organised meet the members events with about 50 people at each one.
In parliament, her power base has been a coterie of Labour MPs who, during the last parliament, grew exasperated by Miliband’s leadership and quietly identified Kendall, then a shadow junior health minister, as having leadership potential. According to one of them, John Woodcock, the group included Stella Creasy, Alison McGovern, Steve Reed, Toby Perkins, Phil Wilson and Gloria De Piero.
Woodcock said: “The way [Miliband] was trying to appeal to people … was nuts. [Kendall] was prepared to make the argument to the Labour party how we needed to change that approach.”
John Healey, a former Treasury minister who worked with Kendall in her first shadow ministerial position on health, said she is reliable, loyal and hardworking with a “sharp, strong policy mind”. But, he has concluded, she lacks the political experience to win this time.
That showed at Canary Wharf, where Andy Burnham, a former health secretary, and the veteran campaigner Corbyn gave answers that were deeper and more honed to score political points. As the latter received ever louder applause for his attacks on inequality, poverty and the housing crisis, Kendall sat upright, eyes narrowing, struggling to land a punch, even with her energetic delivery.
She missed a chance during a question about David Cameron’s reference to a “swarm” of migrants at Calais when a young Kurdish man electrified the room with a story of how he arrived as a refugee from Iraq aged five and is now studying politics at Cambridge. Instead of feeding off the emotion, Kendall started talking about problems in Libya and the energy ebbed. Her answer about the pay gap complained of by black and minority ethnic employees was “let us change the legal remit of the low pay commission”, while Corbyn unleashed a crowdpleaser, saying there were “too many black cleaners and not enough black managers”.
Healey said Kendall needs “better, deeper political experience”. He observed that she represents a strand in Labour which “prizes managerial competence almost more highly than principled politics”. He believes this group calculates, perhaps rightly, that such an approach appeals to an increasingly apolitical and non-partisan electorate.
Kendall also has the full backing of the Progress Group, the right-leaning faction in Labour heavily funded by Lord Sainsbury, which hosted Blair last month when he told people whose heart was with Corbyn to “get a transplant”. The board that decided to back Kendall over Burnham and Yvette Cooper included Lord Mandelson.
Hence why her opponents at the far-left Morning Star newspaper said recently that it is Kendall, not Corbyn, who should be seen as the spearhead of an “entryist plot” – in her case from the right and the business lobby.
Far from it, she believes. Her vision is to return Labour to the centre ground that delivered the election victories for Clement Attlee in 1945 and Blair in 1997.
Kendall has said at hustings: “We didn’t have a proper vision for a better life that everyone could feel a part of. If you weren’t on the minimum wage and owned your own business, we had too little to say ... We can’t turn back and be the unelectable party of protest. I don’t want to protest. I want to get into power. I want us to back great businesses. I want to get power out of Whitehall and down to our communities.”
She has been forthright with her views on Labour’s recent failures. She said the party has “sounded like we didn’t want to help people that wanted to get on”. Her campaign strategy has been to mount near full-frontal attacks on the party’s mistakes.
Kendall started laying out these hard truths at the first hustings in mid-June in Nuneaton, the bellwether marginal that the Conservatives held in the first big result of election night in May. She rowed straight into Cooper and Burnham’s record as part of previous Labour projects.
She said: “I don’t have the baggage of the past. We have got to move on from the politics of the comfort zone.”
When Burnham remarked in the hustings that “the party comes first always”, she fired back sharply: “Well, the country comes first.”
Her approach of trying to reach out beyond the party has won her praise by allies as “steely”. But it has attracted suspicion from others. One young activist told the Guardian that Kendall was “an enemy in our own party – someone who is against the interests of our own members”.
Robert, 24, an activist at the Canary Wharf hustings, said: “She set about actively trying to hack off Labour party members, which isn’t how you go about trying to win an election. I agree with Kendall on having a defence budget that is 2% of GDP. I agree with her on [supporting] free schools. But the way she went about it put me right off her. She has put herself in a strict ideological position: ‘If Jeremy [Corbyn] is left, I am right’. That’s not what Labour members want, as we shall find out.”
One aspect of the leadership campaign that has frustrated her is sexism. She said: “I have been asked about my weight, where I buy my clothes from, whether the fact I don’t have children rules me out to be Labour leader, and I just think those questions would never be asked of men.”
When the Mail on Sunday asked about her weight to see if she was about the same as the Duchess of Cambridge, she was so annoyed she told its reporter to “fuck off”.
Kendall said: “[At Cambridge] I remember someone saying to my friend Sam who came from the same part of the world as me, Potters Bar, when she wanted to get a job at an investment bank, that she might get a job as a secretary. I wanted to lamp him. I thought ‘how bloody dare you’. She’s as good as anyone just because she hasn’t come from a private school with incredible wealth.”
In policy terms, she is, like Blair, a pragmatist declaring that “what matters is what works”.
Kendall wants to invest to end inequality in the early years “so every child has an equal shot at life”. She is focused on tackling low pay and devolution. She is strongly pro-Europe, and says: “Our future should be as an open, outward-looking country leading the reform of Europe, not the wrongheaded and damaging isolationism of Labour’s past.”
Her relative greenness in parliament is evidenced by the fact that John Mills, Labour’s biggest individual donor, had never come across her until after she declared for the leadership. Mills, a multimillionaire shopping channel owner, has since given Kendall funding and said she is most likely to “capture the centre ground and have a reasonably business-friendly profile”.
He admitted it was a hindrance to be seen in the party as the Blairite candidate, but said her frequent praise of Blair’s success in three elections and ability to represent the rump of middle England was attractive to many voters.
Mills said: “That’s her pitch and I think she is quite brave in saying this. Plus I think there might be quite a few people in the Labour party who feel in their heart of hearts there is a good deal of truth in that.”
To Mills, Kendall appeals to “people with aspirations, homeowners, people running their own businesses, those not dependent on welfare or other forms of government support. Those who are self-supporting and who have a social conscience but who think that people that don’t deserve it shouldn’t get benefits.”
In other words, she could grab back soft Tory voters and Labour defectors to Ukip. A survey by Anglia Ruskin University of councillors in 125 of the Conservatives’ tightest parliamentary constituencies found she was considered the biggest threat to the Tories of any of the candidates. If Corbyn wins, she has said she would not serve in his frontbench team, but neither will she switch sides, as her father did. Instead, Kendall declares that she will fight to keep “the party I love” from splitting in two.
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