Andy Burnham and the Myth of Competence

No, that’s not the title of a new Harry Potter knock-off – although Andy Burnham has the makings of a put-upon junior wizard with numerous chips on his narrow shoulders. Rather, it’s a response to Burnham’s latest contribution to the moribund Labour leadership battle, replicated below for your viewing pleasure:

Now, there are a number of problems with this. Burnham is clearly making a pointed comment about the attempts of other candidates – particularly Liz Kendall, who he probably sees as his main rival – to move Labour back to a position which could be loosely described as “Blairite”.

As an aside, I personally think that with Kendall leading Labour and Tim Farron leading the Lib Dems, the latter party would have vast acres of space to be a real, vote-winning opposition. Tony Blair’s success is often considered solely due to his brilliance as a winner of elections. But this is a hopelessly simplistic view of history, and one that ignores the fact that a donkey in a red rosette – not a proverbial donkey, a literal donkey – could have won in 1997 given the mess that the Conservatives were then in. So it shouldn’t be taken as axiomatic that moving Labour to the centre and to the authoritarian makes the party more electable.

I digress. Burnham, of course, has also rejected that analysis, although in a number of important ways he has indicated that he does want to move the party to what might be considered more Blair-like positions – if only in their tactical ingenuity rather than in their substance. On immigration and Europe, for example, he is tacking close to the Tories, which I suspect Blair might consider good politics if not good policy.

But the line he is trying to hammer in this tweet is silly. And it’s silly because it actually does exactly the thing he claims to want to avoid. The first statement criticises Kendall for “copying the Tories”. But the second line suggests that the measure of a political party’s success is to be “better” than the Tories.

Without further explication, this is a troubling idea – that the viability or the electoral success of a political party is based purely on competence. I have to say that competence is one of the attributes I look for last in a politician. I tend to think that integrity, compassion and a coherent set of beliefs are far more important. With those attributes in place, I would feel relatively relaxed about entrusting the delivery and implementation of policies based upon them to the apparatus of the state.

The myth of competence, though, has infected the whole of our political culture. The irony of Burnham’s statement is that it is a Tory invention – that politics is primarily about management. The genius of it is that by forcing others to fight on the basis of competence, the Tories ensure that everyone is clustered on their natural territory at all times. I’m not talking about political left and right here; it’s far more about semantics and semiotics than anything else.

I haven’t got time to go further into why this is such a damaging concept this evening – perhaps another time – but Andy Burnham really should give some more thought to the matter. His attempt to paint his rivals as soft Tories would be more successful if he didn’t back himself into the same corner in the process.

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