INTERVIEW by DAVID WOODING
WANNABE Labour leader Liz Kendall told yesterday of her lifelong “rebel” streak which she hopes will propel her party back into power.
The feisty MP admits she’s a born agitator – making her well qualified to break up the old guard standing in the way of change.
Despite being a new face to most voters, she says that makes her the only “sure bet” to put Labour on the path to government again.
Unlike her two main rivals – Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper – Ms Kendall has never held a Cabinet post.
But she’s been “leading from the front” since she was made head girl at pop star Geri Halliwell’s old school, Watford Grammar.
“I always thought myself as a bit of a rebel,” she declared. “So when they pinned the badge on me I couldn’t believe it.
“On the first day, I had full make-up on and the headmistress called me in and said ‘You’ve got to wipe all that off your face’. I remember thinking I don’t want to do this.
“But being head girl gave me an early taste of responsibility. I relish it and never shirk it. I don’t know why but I’ve always liked leading from the front.”
Ms Kendall, 44, also ran after-school sports clubs and societies and also captained the ladies’ football team at Queens’College, Cambridge.
She said: “I wasn’t particularly great on the pitch but I loved getting people together, building a team, going out to win.
“People want a strong leader. They want someone who listens, debates, decides and then leads from the front.
“I often look at great sportsmen and women and if you saw what happened in the Olympics, all of those gold medal winners always thanked the team. They said it wasn’t just them.
“That’s as true in politics as it is in sport. You need a team player who is able to point their side in the right direction and take everyone with them.
“I think I’m a sure bet because I’m the candidate who is going to change the party so we can win to change the country.”
Ms Kendall, 44, says Labour must wake up to the “catastrophic” scale of its election defeat before it accepts the scale of the changes needed to win again.
She said: “We need profound change, to put it mildly. A change of face and a bit of tweaking won’t be enough to win back voters who left us for Ukip, the SNP and Tories.
“So we need to turn the page and have a fresh start – and I’m the only person who can do that.”
Fitness fanatic Ms Kendall, who does four 45-minute runs a week, believes her boundless energy and modern thinking will overcome her lack of experience at top level.
“It’s not about the jobs you’ve done in the past,” she said. “It’s about understanding how our country has changed and what people want to get a better life for themselves and their families.
“The painful truth is people didn’t trust us on the economy or with their taxes and we didn’t have a positive vision for a better life that everyone could feel part of.
“It’s their money, not ours. They are busting a gut every week to earn a living and it’s their hard-earned taxes we are spending. So we have got to be more careful with their money and get the best out of every penny we spend.
“We shouldn’t be spending more on servicing our debt than on educating our children. We should be investing in things that really matter for people
“It helps to be a new face but we also have to have a new argument.”
She blasts Ed Miliband’s failed election campaign for being too narrow in its appeal.
He talked a lot about “one nation” but then failed to follow it through by focussing on a single social group.
Ms Kendal said: “I care passionately about people who are struggling but we have got to have a vision of a better life for everybody.
“If you weren’t on a zero-hours contract or the minimum wage or if you own your own home, we didn’t have anything to say. We want to be a government for the whole country and that means having a much broader message to people.”
Ms Kendall’s parents typify the sort of aspirational voters she believes her party needs to win back. Her mum was a primary school teacher while her dad, who left school at 16, studied for finance exams while working at the Bank of England.
Turning on her opponents, she added: “We need big, big changes and I’m the only candidate offering that.
“We don’t want ten more years of opposition. We want five years to set out a better vision and win in 2020.”
Dark-haired Ms Kendall, a svelte size eight, admits her personal life has been a little chaotic since she became MP for Leicester West in 2010.
Her current crisis is the “random splodge” on the white jacket she is wearing for our interview.
“It probably happened on the bus,” she said before asking an aide to dash to collect a pink M&S replacement from her flat.
“I showed my mum the jacket and she just went ‘Tut, tut. It will never last.’
“She was right. It’ll teach me never to wear white again. Other things I have to think about is not having any milk in the fridge . I’ve also run out of toothpaste.
“But like most people I know what comes in and out of my bank account. I know what I pay for and what it costs for what I buy. But I am not going to pretend I buy things that I don’t. People lead different lives.”
Ms Kendall recently ended an eight-year relationship with comedian and Inbetweeners star Greg Davies.
She is coy about discussing the break-up, adding: “He’s still a good friend and he makes me laugh. I thought the Inbetweeners was hysterical, properly funny and tapped into.”
Would she stand more chance of winning if she had a family?
“I’ve got a family,” she retorts. “Families come in lots of different shapes and sizes and I spend a lot of time – not as much as I’d like – with my nieces.
“They’re aged five and eight and they love Irish dancing and put in so much effort and energy. I danced a lot when I was younger. I love it and know how much you have to work at it.
“I went to see them in a concert. They did a funky 80s neon legwarmer version and they were out there, giving it their all, confident, in front of all these people and I felt very proud.”
The shadow care minister also has a wide circle of friends outside the Westminster “bubble”, which helps her to keep a foot in the real world.
“I try and stay as normal as possible,” she says. “If I don’t, my friends will tell me where to get off. Most of them aren’t involved in politics. They do lots of other things and that helps me.
“But I am also proud that I’m in politics because it is about changing people’s lives.
“That’s why I’ve thrown my hat in the ring. Because I love my party, I love my country. I think the Tories are letting the country down. But Labour is, too.
“And we’ve got to change if we are going to convince people to trust us to govern again.”
LIZ on SCHOOLS
Toddlers would get an early-step on the learning ladder if Liz Kendall becomes PM.
She wants pre-school education to be given equal status to primary and secondary schools.
Ms Kendall said: “My parents taught me education was my ticket to better life but sadly the labour party has stopped talking about education and forgotten what it’s for.
“We’ve got to start really young. Kids in my constituency start school 15 months behind where they should be in their development and then play catch up for the rest of their lives. That’s my big thing on education. Start young.”
LIZ on JOBS
THE world of work has changed dramatically, she says, and so must Labour’s attitude to jobs.
“We’ve got to be a high-skill, high-wage economy in every part of the country,” she added. “We need a modern industrial strategy right across the country.
“The world is changing, work is changing and we’ve got to change and so have the unions. Women are working full time, part time, in all different sorts of sectors.”
Only 14 per cent of private sector workers now belong to a union and 15 per cent of Britain’s workforce is self-employed.
Ms Kendall said: “We’re Labour, the party of work, but we can be pro-business and pro-worker.
“Great companies know they do better if their employees have good skills. And good union leaders know that if businesses make profits, thrive, grow and expand, their members will do better, too.”
LIZ on EUROPE
LIZ Kendall was first of the leadership candidates to say she was in favour of an in-out referendum.
She said: “It was a mistake not to have done so before the election. Europe has got to change.
“We have to have the courage of our convictions, go out and make the case. I am very strong on Britain staying part of Europe because I believe it is vital for jobs and investment.”
SPICE Girl Geri Halliwell went to the same school as Ms Kendal – in the year below.
She remembers her well and spotted her as a rising star at a talent contest at Watford Grammar School, Herts.
Ms Kendal said: “I remember thinking, God, she is giving it her all.
“She was making the very best she could and was full of guts, passion and energy.”
She added: “I didn’t know her really well. But I couldn’t help but notice her. I remember spotting her for the first time and thinking ‘Wow!’”
LIZ’S PACKED LUNCH
LIZ Kendall never pulls her punches – and socked it to a phantom fridge raider who swiped her packed lunch.
She was stunned to find her tuna sandwich missing when she went to pick it up one day soon after landing her frontbench job.
So she left a hand-written note on the communal fridge door in a Commons corridor.
It said: “Someone has stolen my lunch from this fridge. I do not appreciate this and warn other people don’t leave anything in her unless you’re happy for it to go missing.”
But next day, a riposte appeared on a bright yellow sticky note: “I took it…AND I’D DO IT AGAIN.”
Later, a third message was added, reading: “YOU ARE A VERY SICK INDIVIDUAL.”
Ms Kendal said: “I bought a sandwich and a salad at a supermarket and put the bag containing them in the fridge.
“They only took one thing out so it wasn’t as if they nicked the whole bag. So I wrote a note warning other MPs on this corridor. Then someone wrote another little note saying they’d do it again, so it was quite funny. But I didn’t write the third note.”