The First Labour Hustings

The five candidates for the Labour leadership meet for the first time.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
10 June 2010

A very quick response to this evening's the New Statesman hustings.

It was great having Diane there. I'm not sure she wants to win. But it would be seriously good to have her up against Nick Clegg at Deputy Prime Minister's Questions, not least because she has an outstanding record on liberty. She must be part of Labour's front bench even if she doesn't lead it.

Andy Burnam apparently looked good on television but is floundering, out of his depth and appeals to the worst kind of Labourism. His holding out still for the invasion and conquest of Iraq is, apart from anything else (ie the fundamental issues), absurd and amateurish - how would he tell President Obama that he was wrong to have opposed the war!

David Miliband is the candidate to beat, the most committed to power and appealing, therefore, to the Labour councilors and its machines. He represents continuity with Blair in his air and appeal. But... a lot more to be said.

His brother, by contrast, whose answers on Iraq were powerful, is the closest to a change candidate, wanting to "turn the page" on Blair and Brown. While Diane is the most different, she is also, as she said, a long-time Labour traditionalist. Ed Miliband was the least tribal and seemed to have best grasped that the world has changed.

Ed Balls was a mixture of the bullying and the reasonable. He makes much of listening but it doesn't feel as if it would be a pleasure talking to him. Yet he can make practical arguments that are compelling. I liked the way he said if we were going to have all the democratic reforms the Miliband brothers were talking about, why not go for a written constitution so there wouldn't be all the confusions that accompany reforms in Britain.

Overall, the upside was an interesting sense of contenders hearing new arguments, trying to explore how they agreed and disagreed. It was well chaired with few, short questions and lots of the would-be leaders talking to each other.

The downside was a sense they they still don't know what has hit them. David Miliband said the deficit wasn't caused by New Labour but by the bankers. The audience liked it. But is it convincing when Brown hailed the bankers as introducing a new "golden age" and Blair went off to be paid by them? And when ex-City Minister Paul Myners himself now attacks the Labour government for its "flawed thinking".  There was much talk of the things Labour did that the contenders are proud of, but can Labour be trusted with the economy again? Or the military? Or the home office?

There was no discussion of the expenses crisis, the corruption of politics on their patch and of their colleagues (see Gerry Hassan's post, below) let alone the possibility that David Miliband covered up British involvement in torture. In his concluding remarks the hopeless Burnham praised the fact there had been no recriminations or introspection! But the media and the Coalition will ensure that Labour's failure as a government is going to be a big feature of the new five years. Taking a credible measure of what indeed went wrong as well as what was good will be essential for any chance of electoral recovery.

Connected to this there was no engagement with the seriousness of the British crisis itself whatever its cause: its economic scale, the national question, the democratic deficit. Above all there was no engagement with the fact that if Labour wants to use the state and government to improve peoples lives, they are handling something that is very dangerous and potentially oppressive and open to misuse even if (big if) your own intentions are faultless.

All this could - and should - be part of the future hustings now that the New Statesman's has set a tone of open-minded argument. The most interesting aspect of the hustings for me was that here were relatively young candidates who are nonetheless experienced. Thirteen years in office has created a generation of Labour politicians who are serious about achieving and know something about doing so, or failing to do so. It was a mature party that ensured Diane made it and that extended the process through to September. It gave itself time to think. Mature and not ideological in the traditional sense. But will they think? If they can bring issues that Labour has hitherto excluded from its concerns: the environment, democracy and the constitution, modern liberty, the English question, as well as fairness but linked to class (see Will Davies), then the leadership competition could become a genuine, even transformative teach-in. I felt the exchanges over migration had this potential quality.

At the same time the civilised and serious nature of this initial hustings was also due to the hollowing out of party politics and even politics itself. Although co-sponsored by CND and the Electoral Reform Society there was no sense of any influential force of opinion making itself felt. One experienced observer now finding his feet after working in Downing Street told me that David Miliband's excruciating answers on Iraq wouldn't damage him because those who cared about such things in the Party had all left. The only outside force mentioned in the debate apart from the BNP was not the greens, or the purple people, or the trade unions, or even English football fans, but London Citizens whom David Miliband declared he was employing to train Labour activists, ie incorporating.

This could change. But if the fifty planned hustings become repetitions of fixed positions, as they are all too likely to be, the candidates will die of boredom and the chance of renwal will be replaced by a banal fight for power over a party that faces ten years of opposition.

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