Liz Kendall speaks for more than half an hour before she finally uses the C-word. "Many people are desperate for a positive alternative; I'm as desperate for that as Corbyn supporters," she says. "I just think my options are more relevant to today's world and more likely to get us elected." There is a sense of relief that the elephant in the room has at last been mentioned.
Kendall is at a women-only campaign event in west London that was billed on Facebook as an "exciting Q&A session". The Labour leadership candidate was introduced here by Britain's first female home secretary, Jacqui Smith, who encouraged us all to buy a Liz Kendall pint glass for a fiver. Yet the event at Hammersmith town hall on Wednesday evening has only drawn around 25 people – and the rows of chairs behind us have been quietly stacked away by organisers to give the place a more intimate vibe.
One Labour member who travelled across London to hear Kendall speak tells BuzzFeed News she's surprised at the low turnout. She insists that a similar event with Kendall last week was absolutely packed. But there's just no comparison with the massive crowds that Kendall's rival and surprise frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn attracts wherever he turns.
How times change. After Labour's general election defeat in May, Kendall – MP for Leicester West since 2010 – had political journalists in the palm of her hand when she was the first out of the blocks to run as party leader. There was a buzz about her: the woman who unapologetically wanted to win back Tory voters and was unafraid to give straight answers to straight questions.
Yet the ripples of excitement she caused in Westminster don't seem to have spread across the country. As Corbyn's popularity rises, Kendall's fortunes are waning. The shadow care minister has fought a tough campaign, routinely labelled a Tory and a Blairite by left-wingers and constantly pressed by the media on her single status and even her weight. On Thursday bookmakers William Hill had Kendall at 100-1 to become the next Labour leader, a distant fourth behind Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham, and Corbyn – who is riding high on 1-3. Ballot papers are sent out on Friday, and it is expected that most people will vote within the next few days.
In the dingy town hall, Kendall seems tired, her voice wavering with emotion at times as she sets out why she wants to be in charge. "I love this party too much to see us lose again," she says, looking audience members in the eye. "And I think Britain's future could be so much brighter than it is. Some people think this leadership election is a choice between principles and power. Well, I tell you what, my principles run right through me – they're in my DNA."
A young woman at the front asks how Kendall would unite the party after a summer of deep divisions. "That is a very good question," she replies carefully. "The honest answer is it's going to be extremely difficult. This debate that has exploded has been simmering for many, many years, when Blair was prime minister, when Brown was prime minister.
"In 2010 we didn't have this debate. The last leadership election was dominated with the story of the rivalry and the fight between the two brothers [Ed and David Miliband]. What happened was Ed wanted to unite the party, and that meant this debate didn't happen. So I think you need to debate, decide, and unite, in that order."
Then she lets slip her anger at the way she has been treated by left-wingers. "You need to find areas where there may be agreement and do that in an atmosphere of respect – and not say that people who have different views from you and yet have been members of the party for 20 years are somehow Tories."
Where did it all go wrong? Kendall got a major boost early in her campaign when Labour rising star Chuka Umunna pulled out of the race and backed her instead. She also enjoys the backing of senior MPs Margaret Hodge, Tristram Hunt, Pat McFadden, and Gloria De Piero. But with new "one member, one vote" rules, parliamentary endorsements now count for very little against an apparent tidal wave of grassroots support for Corbyn.
One senior Labour campaigner tells BuzzFeed News: "No one would have picked Liz as the torchbearer for the next generation. It was meant to be Chuka, and everyone knows it. The truth is her campaign has been rubbish at story generation – they haven't kept up the momentum with the press."
Former Labour MP Eric Joyce is a fan of Kendall but agrees that "Liz was never going to be a leading candidate in this". He suggests that the exit of "big beasts" at the general election has created a power vacuum in Labour's centre ground, leaving Kendall on her own to fight the left-wing forces.
Joyce tells BuzzFeed News: "All these senior Blairites have completely bottled out and you're left with Liz – as nice and good as as she is, a fairly junior politician. I had dinner the other night with a former, very Blairite cabinet minister; he was saying, 'Maybe it was a bit crap of us to all go at the same time.' I think some of them are now thinking, 'Maybe we left a bit prematurely,' and it's partly their fault because it is a terrible mess. Liz is saying all the right stuff but her relative inexperience shows at times."
Yet Kendall is sick of being called a Blairite candidate, rejecting such "labels from the past". She has clearly been wary of bringing up Blair's name for fear of a fresh attack – yet is unashamedly proud of his record in government.
Back in the town hall, a woman asks Kendall if she agrees Labour made a mistake at the last election in brushing its achievements under the carpet. "I mean, Tony Blair won three stinking majorities, brought in the minimum wage, devolution, lots of new hospitals and schools, and no one seemed to be trumpeting that," the woman says. "And that baffled me, I couldn't understand that."
Kendall doesn't hold back. "No, we didn't do enough to defend what we did in government," she says. "I think over the last five years we tried to distance ourselves from the great achievements. For some people the Iraq war obliterated any of the good stuff we did in government; I understand why people feel like that. But that's not what I believe. I've seen the phenomenal difference we made."
And she points out that the Conservatives are now encroaching on Labour territory. "You saw what George Osborne did in the budget – 'We're the one-nation party, we're the party of working people, we're the party of the living wage.'
"I just leave you with this warning: The Tories are out to destroy us. They want to take our politics, they want to take our money – by taking our funding from the trade unions – and they want to take away our prospect of ever winning in England again by changing constituency boundaries.
"We've got to wake up to that and not go back to some fantasy politics, some never-never land where people see us protesting on the sidelines and not dealing with the issues that lost us the last election."
She doesn't need to mention Corbyn's name this time.
Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Ashton at email@example.com.
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