Labour Begins Its Long Conversation: The Leader Hustings Come North of the Border

Gerry Hassan
13 June 2010

The Labour summer show headed northwards; the first UK party leader election since Tony Blair began the New Labour era in 1994. The five Labour candidates along with Iain Gray, Scottish Labour in the Scottish Parliament, appeared in Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall before a packed audience of 400 Scottish party members.

This proved to be a lively hustings with good humour, animated discussion and no rancour. If it had any faults it lacked any real disagreements, provided little detail, and pandered to what they thought a Scottish audience would want, referencing the Scottish party’s recent success in the UK election, along with Donald Dewar and Robin Cook. This gave the impression of a group of exam candidates who had engaged in last minute cramming for a viva and were showing off the results, rather than a subtle grasp of non-Westminster politics, or of Scotland…

Iain Gray, opened the proceedings. Before anything had happened he declared that  “that the hustings showed Labour was on the way back”. Then came his official story of Scottish Labour: the party had learnt the lessons of defeat in 2007. When he took over the party had just lost Glasgow East and was 16% behind the SNP in the polls. “We fought back and we won” declared Gray, seeing May’s election result as “one million Scots saying yes to Labour”.

This wasn’t a bad speech; with a certain fighting quality and energy, just wrong-headed. Is the Scottish party really the epitome of health? And was he really saying it was all the fault of Wendy Alexander given the problems of the summer of 2008?

Johann Lamont, Deputy Leader of Scottish Labour, chaired the debate. It did demonstrate some life, reflection and the first tentative steps of recovery - in what may be a long road. All of the contenders talked of the lessons of defeat with David Miliband mentioning that the party has “lost four and a half million votes and 160 MPs since 1997”.

The lessons of the New Labour era were examined with Ed Miliband observing that “we became technocrats and managers” and Diane Abbott that “we forgot our base”. Andy Burnham spoke of the stranglehold of “the London-centreness of our politics”.

This was all spectacularly short of any specifics or wider understanding of the cumulative failure of New Labour and what our politics had become. There was no attempt to explain the scale of the deficit or how to reduce it, no real analysis of what to do about banking and Labour’s culpability in the financial crisis, or indeed of the party’s uncritical embracing of the freewheeling nature of turbo-capitalism.

All five waxed at great length about defending the public sector against ‘tory cuts”: a return to an age-old Labour “Back to the Future” theme. Don’t trust Tories they are just like Thatcher and remember the 1980s, just as a previous generation railed against the memory of 1930s dole queues and appeasement. It took David Miliband to state that “we need a strong private sector given 75 per cent of people work there”.

Most of the candidates when asked about the BP ecological disaster didn’t even mention it in passing, Ed Miliband exempted who talked of “the need for a post-oil economy”. The rest waffled away in the most vague generalities.

On welfare and what a questioner called “the inherited poverty” of several generations endemic in parts of Glasgow and communities up and down the nation, none of the five showed any clue what to do. David Miliband slammed against poverty declaring “that is why we are socialists” to loud applause, before announcing “Iain Duncan Smith hasn’t got the answers” without saying why he was wrong or offering anything positive.

Diane Abbott talked of “the lack of role models” in her constituency of the kind she had when she grew up, Ed Miliband of the mistake of “Frank Field thinking of restricting child poverty and ending Breakfast Clubs”, while Andy Burnham said “it is about one word: hope”.

When we got onto foreign policy via the Middle East with not one of the five mentioning once the words “the occupation”. David Miliband claimed “he was the only Cabinet Minister who spoke out against the Israel invasion of Lebanon”, and that “the worst thing that happened to Tony Blair was George Bush”. Ed Miliband responded with what was perhaps the best soundbite of the day stating, “We could have got off the train George Bush was driving at any time and we didn’t”.

The success of Scottish Labour was mentioned by all five, as was the Calman Commission’s proposals for limited tax raising powers north of the border. Only Abbott had a glimmer of the argument over Calman saying, “we need to look at the business and voluntary leaders who have called for fund-raising powers for the Parliament” (she meant tax-raising). Abbott was also the only candidate who at any time referred to the “nations and regions” of the UK, indicating that see recognised the reconfigured nature of politics more than her four Westminster colleagues.

Scotland was characterised by two themes, both personal. All the candidates said that Iain Gray should be Scottish leader, a member of the Labour National Executive and sit in the Shadow Cabinet. The second, which ran like a thread through the entire debate, was the constant fawning to the memories of Donald Dewar. Dewar was in Blair’s original Cabinet, oversaw the creation of the Scottish parliament and became its first First Minister, but died soon after in 2000, when he was only 63. David Miliband even shaped his final contribution by talking about “the lessons from Donald Dewar’s legacy”. (Perhaps none of them knew that Dewar once told Anthony Barnett that he was Anthony’s “strongest supporter in the Cabinet”.)

All of this seemed audience pleasing and playing into the folklore of Scottish Labour’s sentimental sense of itself. But for a wider Scottish public it can come over as patronising and such self-regard has ill-served the British party as it has clung to various vestiges of its past.

Not surprisingly for a Labour debate at this time there was an overwhelming focus on addressing Labour’s internal structures. In any Labour meeting there is always a default position of talking in-depth about the inner world of the party as if it were the real world and this debate was no exception.

They talked about the lessons of the 1980s and 1990s and whether New Labour had over-reached in its control and “iron discipline”. Ed Balls talked of “reviving the party” while Diane Abbott, Andy Burnham, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband all made sympathetic sounds. Burnham spoke of the old style “theatre of party conferences” and remembered affectionately the “Kinnock versus Hatton battle” which was one of his first party conferences. Balls reflected that he joined the party at its “nadir in 1983 and had no wish to go back to then”.

This discussion brought a response from David Miliband that led to the sharpest disagreement of the debate. He stated “we have to save ourselves from structures which demoralised and nearly destroyed us in the 1980s”. This was taken up by all of the other candidates. Abbott and Balls in particular felt it was a peculiar and anti-party remark. Significantly, facing this challenge, Miliband Senior chose not to reply.

New Labour’s mistakes were mentioned at points, but these were mostly identified as process, not policy or ideas. Thus, various candidates protested against “spin” and the centralist mindset and management, which so detracted from Labour’s achievements. Nobody mentioned the creeping privatisation of public services, or PFI/PPP, or Trident.

There was no clear winner in the debate. Diane Abbott did not put over a serious, coherent critique of New Labour, but she did add spark. Most disappointing were Ed Balls and Andy Burnham, neither of whom have found a distinct voice. Burnham in particular veered all over the place and a National Care Service is apparently his big idea.

This brings the debate down to a family affair: David and Ed. On this showing it could be a very close contest with David more the loyalist and Ed the more critical and open-minded. If this remains the case whatever the result Ed Miliband looks like the coming man.

The overall impression was of a party with some life and energy in it, not completely shellshocked by defeat and the last decade, but still significantly in denial. The debate was introduced as not only about “the election of the next leader, but the next Prime Minister” by Scottish Labour Chair Claudia Beamish. There was no acknowledgement of how New Labour turned British politics upside down, nor how the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition marks a new phase of politics which poses huge challenges to Labour.

For all the debate’s shortcomings Labour has begun an important, perhaps historic conversation. It matters to all of us – not just those inside it. And we should listen, engage and challenge the candidates to move beyond the easy soundbites, clichés and comforts which have shaped Labour for too long.

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