Labour leadership debate: the verdict

David Miliband at lectern

David Miliband, the former Foreign Secretary, is the frontrunner

The following is a first-hand account of last night’s Labour leadership contest hustings, hosted by The New Statesman at Church House, Westminster.

Only one of the five candidates looked and sounded like the next leader of The Labour Party, but which one was it? Read on.

David Miliband

The elder and more politically mature of the Milibands used the debate as a platform to demonstrate a hitherto unseen passion and warmth, which confounded received wisdom that paints David Miliband as a cerebral, disconnected technocrat. Moreover, the display was wholly convincing.

Initially, he stressed the importance of taking care when making big decisions in government, and criticised the Lib/Con coalition for approaching major issues in a scattergun and piecemeal way. He then moved on to industrial policy, criticising Labour’s stance for being “too timid” in recent history.

Tellingly, David Miliband was the sole candidate to talk about the untapped capacity of the UK private sector. Also, he referred to himself as a potential Prime Minister – a confident step that the other four candidates elected to sidestep.

On the prickly affair of sibling rivalry, he brought the house down in his proclamation that, “If I thought Ed would make a better leader than me, I would be running his campaign”. This was followed by an “I’m watching you” sideways eye from Miliband the elder to Miliband the younger, which looked altogether like the senior brother pulling rank. Ed Miliband took some time to recover his composure thereafter, which was duly noted by audience and panel alike.

On the prickly affair of sibling rivalry, David Miliband brought the house down in his proclamation that, 'If I thought Ed would make a better leader than me, I would be running his campaign'

Discussing the hot topics of the day, David Miliband came out in favour of Trident and stood by his decision to vote in favour of the war in Iraq. However, he did insist that the 2015 election would not be won or lost on questions over Iraq, and that Trident should be subject to a full economic review. On electoral reform, he stated he would only go as far as AV.

During his final statement, he set out his plan to fuse centre, centre-left and far left politics into the next incarnation of the Labour Party, and insisted the next Labour leader must “speak more, but say the right thing”.

Ed Miliband

The Shadow Energy Secretary showed both an opportunistic streak and a quietly ruthless tendency in his delicately masked ridiculing of Ed Balls, Diane Abbott and even his own brother – traits that would have certainly won over the youthful element of Labour’s membership. However, the battle to woo this particular subculture had already been won as a gaggle of young, wide-eyed and mostly female Ed fans camped outside Church House holding “Vote for Ed Miliband” signs and singing slightly awkward ditties beforehand.

It was his own perceived “ability to inspire” that Ed Miliband leaned on the most during the hustings, and he echoed David Miliband’s sentiment that the new Labour leader had to construct “a wider movement”, thus opening the door to the left and trade unions.

He was quick to blame The City for the country’s perilous fiscal condition, and put the party’s lack of accountability on key issues at the heart of its crushing election defeat. In asserting that both these missives would be addressed under his leadership, Ed Miliband added the rallying cry that “British democracy requires a strong Labour Party”, eliciting hearty applause from both the peanut gallery and Ed Balls.

The two Eds were soon to have their first tiff of the night though. Ed Miliband’s point of view on Iraq appeared to flip-flop from “Yes, we should have gone to war” to “No, we should have given the weapons inspectors more time”, a 180 degree turn that Balls gleefully drew attention to for the benefit of those who missed it. Balls’ next overlong and wandering speech was greeted with a world-weary “It's just like being back in the Treasury” by Miliband junior.

Ed Miliband maintained his commitment to Trident but pledged to push through Labour’s move towards multilateral disarmament. On immigration, he called to “forget the symptoms and look at the causes”, citing the problems as more of a “class issue” than a “race issue”. He would also only go as far as AV on electoral reform.

In his closing segment, Miliband the younger took a swipe at Miliband the elder’s inability to divorce himself from a losing party manifesto, and labelled George Bush “an unfortunate accident for the world”.


Ed Balls

Ed Balls’ chronic inability to crystallise his ideology into a deliverable message was undeniably his Achilles heel during this debate.

Worthy talk of social democracy, solidarity, strength and enshrining Labour’s core principles was devalued by Balls’ proclivity for verbally outstaying his welcome and ending his offerings on negatives.

Moreover, Gordon Brown’s protégé seemed far too preoccupied by matters of criticising, haranguing and ultimately destroying the coalition government - the Conservatives in particular - and gave precious little insight on how he intends to go about fixing his own bruised and beleaguered party. At one point, Balls referred to the coalition’s budget deficit policy as being “a worse threat than Thatcher”.

Balls, however, is a Labour man through and though, so some of his zeal should be forgiven. Between proclaiming that the coalition are systematically demolishing institutes of Government, and the Conservatives are “pandering to the BNP” in his Yorkshire constituency, he did make impressive points on the subjects of bottom-up social policy and the added strength PR could provide to the BNP.

Diane Abbott aside, Trident was favoured by all candidates, and Ed Balls was no exception. On Iraq, he echoed the view he proposed in an article for The Observer, saying he was in favour at the time, but in retrospect it was a huge and damaging mistake. On electoral reform, he would go no further than AV.

Finally, in response to the question of why he’s depicted as something of a hard-headed bully by the media, Balls described how he felt victimised by “anonymous briefings” delivered both by the Conservatives and “other parties”. The tension on stage at that point was palpable.

Diane Abbott

A latecomer to the table, Diane Abbott enjoyed something of a Clegg-effect at this particular hustings. Maybe it was due to the celebratory mood after a black, female leftist made it onto the ballot, or perhaps the CND-backed event allowed Abbott her dream audience, but almost all of her contributions, and they were defiant contributions, were met with rapturous applause.

Characteristically, Abbott arrived with a courageous wants list. She wants Trident, described as a “New Labour talisman”, scrapped, she wants to take the topic of electoral reform off the table and she wants the right-wing media to stop propagating the myth that the nation is scared to discuss immigration.

Immigration was Abbott’s strong suit, and the loudest, most sustained cheer of the evening followed her insistence that the nation’s disquiet over immigration is actually a “proxy” for other social, governmental failings such as lack of housing and rising unemployment.

Abbott gained her second largest ovation when she opined the deep and painful cuts lamented by David Cameron “will affect all of our lives, but not his”.  

Andy Burnham

If the Labour Party simply required an honest and straightforward talker at the helm, then Andy Burnham’s name would take precedence over all the aforementioned candidates in columns such as these.

The rebuilding job is so enormous though that one fears it may be a little beyond Burnham’s capabilities. On tonight’s evidence, he would make a fine senior cabinet minister, particularly in the Home Office.

Burnham, situated furthest from the Chair and therefore less able than the two Eds to stage-manage proceedings, talked of unifying the party and bringing together its disparate elements. Emphasis was placed on purpose, pride and sticking together – regardless of your position in the progressive continuum.

He also spelled out a Labour Party under his tutelage that lays downs its principles early, and is fully transparent on its decisions and decision making process. Burnham’s Labour Party would furthermore support business, without being seduced by the glamour of “big business”, a legacy of Tony Blair’s cabinet.

Burnham remains resolutely committed to Trident and the Iraq War, using Saddam Hussein’s “pretence” that he was harbouring WMD as justification for embarking on the campaign.

On electoral reform, Burnham was non-committal and, frankly, weak. He said he had “thought about” the eventuality of AV, but was “not yet convinced”, much like the audience were largely unconvinced he had any leadership credentials whatsoever.


3 comments about this article

comment by Vanessa
The next election won't be won and lost on Trident though, it'll come down to economic and social policy. The coalition are going to destroy the recovery and drag down our local communities in the process - from this degenerated state, one of the Milibands can win a general election for us.
comment by Dan Drage
I mostly agree with you Jim, although Ed Miliband's commitment to a long-term multilateral disarmament plan is perhaps the most progressive of all the candidates. Of greater interest is the blanket rejection of PR across the board, which, although self-serving, seemed anti-progressive to me. If you're looking for a potential Prime Minister to emerge from this leadership contest though, then David Miliband stands head and shoulders above the competition.
comment by Jim
Only one of the candidates supports scrapping Trident, and however highly anyone thinks of Diane, she is unlikely to be elected as leader. This means that Labour will be saddled once again with a policy which is an electoral liability and which makes less and less sense as economic recovery fails to materialise. Looks like we'll be facing at least two Parliaments in opposition unless we junk this pointless policy.

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