I Went to a Labour Party Picnic in South London to Try to Find Liz Kendall Supporters

Most of the people at the Labour leadership candidate's gathering in Dulwich park seemed to be voting for Jeremy Corbyn.

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12 August 2015, 11:50am

All photos by Chris Bethell

Are you ready for Kendall-mania?

Kendall-mania, as we all know, is hard to define, so let's allow some of the people who were there, in Dulwich Park at a picnic and question-and-answer session for Labour leadership candidate Liz Kendall define it for us.

People like the tall man at the back, in the pink shirt, his hair swept back in default posho. "Actually, I only live up the road."

Or the Asian retiree in the blue-and-white striped blazer. "Well, I live very nearby, you see. So I thought I'd come along."

Or even the balding dad-of-three who looks like exactly the sort of socially responsible, upmarket metropolitan Blair harvested in droves. "The boys are on holiday, so I thought I'd bring them down to get a little exposure to this sort of thing. And besides, we live just the other side of the park."

This is the first sign of Kendall-mania. Living very nearby. People will come literally tens of metres to hear Liz speak. They will walk the length of Dulwich Park, or even the approaching College Road, just to be in her presence. Providing she keeps her remarks brief, providing there are free snacks.

The second sign of Kendall-mania, of course, is saying you're going to be voting for Jeremy Corbyn. The man in the pink shirt: "Actually, I'm voting for Corbyn."

The Asian retiree in the blue and white striped blazer: "Well I'm a lifelong Labour member, so obviously I'm interested in what she has to say. But Jeremy's got my vote."

Then again, isn't everyone? A poll in the Times yesterday had St Jezza Of Islington North pegging 53 percent of eligible Labourites. This is not merely wiping the floor with his opponents, it's then riding them round the floor like human pool noodles. In an election meant to be about graded compromise, based on a centrist-favouring alternate vote system, he's due to win purely on first preferences. That is boggling.

Poor Liz. She was the future once. Coming from the centre seemed like the obvious killer move. The centre is where politics happens. It's not about reassuringly stroking the hair of the people who already love you. It's about tickling the chins of the people who don't. It's about allaying the fears of the voters who hovered in the ballot booth because they didn't trust Labour on the deficit, or immigration, or welfare. As Obama said of negotiating with Iran: "You don't make peace with your friends".

For about two weeks there, in the opening days of the campaign, it looked like the momentum was shifting towards Kendall. She was a fresh face, unlike crocodile tear-crying marionette duo Burnham and Cooper. Her boldness, cheek even, in running, and in the sort of unpallatable truths she was prepared to tell her party, seemed to have its own genius. She was the fresh face of insurgency. The one they wanted to brand with hope and change memes.

But then everything stalled. People eventually worked out that in 2015 you can't brand "let's give Blairism another go" with "hope" and "change" memes.

The moment passed. Her inexperience went back to being a deficit. The simple fact was, Liz had canvassed the centre ground very efficiently. But nothing she said about it really seemed interesting. When he ran for Tory leader, David Cameron at least succeeded in marrying traditional Tory fiscal skepticism to a kind of Notting Hill groovy metropolitan liberalism, and wrapped it all up in a big bow of volunteerism. Kendall just doesn't seem to be peddling anything new, unique, different.

Now, she's polling eight percent in the leadership race, and is having picnics in public parks where she doles out Cadbury's Chocolate Fingers to Jeremy Corbyn voters as a way of killing time over the next month until the results come in. Spare a thought for her tedium. Spare a thought for Blairism.

The author (centre), swept up in Kendall-mania

Liz turns up a few minutes past the appointed time, in park-unfriendly high heels, trailing only her SPAD and another organiser. She smiles a splay of teeth, cracks a softening gag. There is no mistaking who the politician in the group is.

Within moments, a pathetic fallacy intervenes. The clouds arrive with Liz, and a gentle but picnic obliterating rain begins to fall. The troupe are led into the park pavilion, a very standard rec room.

"I'll keep this brief," Liz says. "And then we can have more time for the snacks!" All the Corbyn voters start to think about snacks. Mmm. Snacks.

There's been a lot of rumbling in recent weeks about Kendall as a kind of Soft-Tory entryist. But that would be unfair, because the speech she gives is one no Tory ever would. Its key theme is social equality, public service, leaving no one behind. That, she says, is why Labour need to stop kidding themselves and move back to the middle.

"You have to be in power to make a difference," she points out, before diving into a history lesson on the Labour governments of 1945, '64, and '97, marking out their key achievements: NHS, Open University, school and hospital reform.

It's a good speech. Kendall is definitely not PolBot 3000 in the way of a Chuka Umuna or an Yvette Cooper. She speaks fluent human, from her charmingly bog-standard Watford accent, to her opening anecdote about chilling with her boyf on Election Night 1992, to the way she unexpectedly sounds like she's on the verge of tears at times – like when making a point about declining wages.

It feels like she has had a life somewhere in the span of her life. Unlike St Jeremy who probably spent his first pivotal election night cloistered in prayer and fasting, or Cooper or Burnham, who probably spent their first election night eating polystyrene balls and memorising CSJ policy review appendices, she looks like she may at least once have gotten wasted on ecstasy, climbed on the couch in her flat and treated her mates to a gurned-up karaoke version of something by the Wu Tang.

The author enjoying orange juice

It's over, as promised, pretty quickly, no "Protect Ya Neck" encore. The meeting breaks up into Sainsbury's own-brand lemonade, oat cookies, fudge (typical politicians), and a chance for ordinary voters to interact one-on-one with the next non-leader of the Labour Party. This several of them do. Liz nods and smiles and doesn't seem to say anything that feels like an insight. It's a self-consciously chummy style that seems heir to Blair in even more ways.

Dulwich is Stepford Wives land. Where Farage went to school. Where stockbrokers of every pin-stripe mingle easily with management consultants and minor footballers, and lots of little Aryan-blonde Jaspers scamper at your feet. The builders' signs outside the big square houses advertise basement extensions. "Do you know, there's no pub here at all?" two stunned tourists remark to us on Dulwich Village high street, as they pass the artisanal bakery and the art gallery.

In other words, Dulwich is full of exactly the sort of people the next Labour leader will need to reach into if they are to have any chance of forming a government. There are only 12 real marginal constituencies now, the SPAD points out: seats where Labour lost by less than a thousand votes. But they will need to get more than 90 seats back if they are to form the next government. "I keep thinking back to that figure," she shakes her head. "It's a mountain to climb."

Of the four, Liz Kendall is the candidate most likely to reach into Dulwich at the next general election. Unfortunately, right now, she can't even reach into the hardcore politicos of Dulwich Labour.

But then, as the Asian blazer-man says, pointing to Liz as she makes her hasty exit: "Her turn will come." As a man who claims to have been voting for Harold Wilson "before she was even born", he's seen them all come and go. He knows how long the race is. A new MP in 2010, Kendall is still only five years into her political career. Given that Corbyn will only be reaching into the Dulwich heartlands in order to tax cappuccino at 100 percent, it's likely that Kendall will get another shot in only five years. Better luck next time.

@gavhaynes / @CBethell_photo

More on the Labour leadership race from VICE:

I Went to a Jeremy Corbyn Rally in Norwich to Try to Understand Corbyn-mania

Jeremy Corbyn Is the Only Labour Leader Candidate at the Centre of British Politics

What Would Happen if Jeremy Corbyn Became Prime Minister?