Lesley Riddoch: Burnham wants to steal SNP clothes

Andy Burnham wants to improve diversity by fielding equal numbers of male and female candidates. Picture: Getty
Andy Burnham wants to improve diversity by fielding equal numbers of male and female candidates. Picture: Getty
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LABOUR leadership contender’s desire for diversity in the next general election is wide of the mark, writes Lesley Riddoch

So Andy Burnham has adopted the oldest maxim in politics – if you cant beat ‘em join ‘em.

The Labour leadership contender wants to mimic Nicola Sturgeon’s new equality agenda by fielding an equal number of male and female candidates in Scotland for the next Westminster elections – if the new Scottish leader agrees. Burnham, who was favourite to win until the relentless rise of Jeremy Corbyn, says David Cameron’s boundary changes have given the party “a once in a lifetime opportunity” to select 59 new Scottish parliamentary candidates at one go and he’ll use that opportunity to chop dead wood and time-servers from the ranks of Scottish MPs who lost their seats in May. Finally, it seems, a UK Labour leader is admitting what everyone else in Scotland has known for some time – many Labour MPs so badly neglected their patches that energetic Yes campaigners recruited easily during the indyref and the SNP converted those Yes voters into enthusiastic new members.

A Burnham spokesperson said: “We want [candidates] from trade unions but also people with business backgrounds or professionals with a range of experiences” – and the MP for Leigh in Greater Manchester is prepared to copy the Tories by holding open primaries to get them.

According to Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, Conservative branches in England have decided to give local residents not party members the final say because open primaries “try the candidates in many more arenas: at street stalls, over tea in people’s front rooms and in draughty village halls”.

He believes they also abolish forever the idea of a safe seat: “Wealden [in East Sussex] might be forever cobalt blue but an MP who acquires a reputation for idleness, absenteeism or voting against [local] interests will be challenged for the Conservative nomination. The Whips will find they must persuade and convince, not cajole and threaten. Parliament will become genuinely diverse.”

As well as intending to implement the Tories’ selection technique in Scotland – it’s not clear if or when England will follow – Burnham is taking a leaf from the SNP’s book.

According to a spokesperson: “He is open to people becoming candidates who have not been members for 12 months. We [must] have a strong group who represent the diversity of Scotland. In the past there has been a culture of favoured sons and daughters getting seats which needs to end.”

Amen to that. So could this be a game-changer for Burnham in Labour’s leadership race and Labour in Scotland? Actually, I think not.

The whole thing is nakedly opportunistic and wide of the mark. And I say that as someone who supports women-only shortlists, has long applauded Labour for deploying them and put a £20 bet on Burnham to win last time round because I liked his idea of a National Care Service (NCS) to echo the National Health Service. Even though Burnham is still boldly backing higher taxes to create the NCS and has refrained admirably from making personal attacks on Corbyn – his diagnosis of the party’s Scottish dilemma is woefully inadequate.

Firstly, Labour’s Scottish “problem” is not just a limited range of candidates but outdated policies, old-fashioned controlling outlooks and the need to back indefensible aspects of the British state. The most attractive slate of candidates – which also backs austerity, Trident, welfare cuts, the unelected House of Lords and the legacy of Tony Blair – will not win over traditional, working-class Labour voters.

End of. Just as a diverse “Village People” of Labour candidates which repeats the lazy Burnham mantra that “Nationalism is an ugly brand of politics,” will inevitably fail to attract Yes voters who see themselves as civic campaigners not nasty crypto-fascists. That’s not to say, change isn’t needed. A measure of Scottish Labour’s disconnection is that Burnham is still neck and neck with Corbyn for nominations by Scottish Labour Party branches, while he has fallen to third place in England since his disastrous decision to abstain on the vote over Tory welfare cuts.

So which Scottish voters is Burnham trying to attract? Professionals in the leafy suburbs? High-paid Scots who voted No in case equality struck? Older voters with pensions who irrationally fear Reds under the bed? Does Burnham aim to outflank the SNP on the right, since overtaking on the left has proved hard to do and will only get harder once the Scottish Left Project launches later this month.

This is a dodgy strategy. Bluntly put, most voters in Scotland voted for an anti-austerity party while voters in England largely backed a pro-austerity party. How can the same party appeal to voters in these two very distinct political cultures?

Burnham says “more autonomy to the Scottish party to reflect the logic of the Scotland Bill,” will solve that problem and he will enact the necessary changes at the UK Labour conference this autumn – if elected.

But that doesn’t create an independent stand-alone Scottish party – and there’s the rub. If Burnham as UK Labour leader abstains over another vote on Tory cuts to show Middle England he really will tackle the deficit, he will drive the first nail into the coffin of Scotland’s new Labour leader.

Besides, would Burnham really democratise Scottish candidate selection when the same modernising process in the Labour leadership contest, allowed the rise of his likely nemesis Corbyn -- backed by tens of thousands of new, left-wing members?

If Burnham’s open structures create a sea change in the composition and political leaning of Scottish Labour, will he accept it? Such a quiet transformation has already happened within the SNP, disguised by the change in leadership and the relative absence of domestic Scottish politics during the indyref and General Election.

The SNP’s October conference will reveal exactly where the party (and its leadership) now stands on redistribution of wealth, taxation, devolution of power to town and island authorities and far-reaching land reform. The new SNP could be to the left of the Alex Salmond-led party – unless new members have failed to win nomination as conference delegates. We’ll see.

But Burnham’s determination to select a diverse range of new Scottish Labour candidates could easily be wide of the mark and backfire against a centre-right UK Labour leader.

Luckily for Burnham, he looks increasingly unlikely to be that person.