The Labour leadership contest catches fire

Miliband brothers clash on Iraq as real differences between the five emerge.

The Labour leadership contest kicked off in earnest tonight in the first hustings since nominations closed, with the five official candidates outlining opposing approaches to issues ranging from Iraq to immigration.

David and Ed Miliband, the two leading candidates, clashed repeatedly on the invasion of Iraq as real differences between the two brothers emerged for the first time ever.

Tensions rose after Ed Miliband said that he felt that at the time of the invasion in 2003, when he was not yet an MP, Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, should have been given "more time". His elder brother appeared to raise his eyebrows at this point, as he did when Ed Miliband implied there had been a lack of "values" in foreign policy under Labour.

David Miliband, who was foreign secretary from 2007 until the general election, admitted that "of course" he would not have voted for the war had he known there were no WMDs, and described George W Bush as "the worst thing that ever happened to Tony Blair", but put up a bold defence of the invasion. He also accused his brother and Ed Balls of "having it both ways" over Trident.

"We cannot fight fight this contest pandering on Iraq and Trident or we'll be like the Tories on Europe," one MP supporting David Miliband said afterwards.

In one of the most animated moments of the evening, Ed Miliband was pressed on why he was standing against his brother, but he didn't take the bait, saying that "David would make an excellent leader and prime minister".

David Miliband, for his part, repeated that if he thought Ed Miliband would make a better leader, he would be running Ed Miliband's campaign. The impression was left that Ed was a little more generous than David about the other.

The other moment that was truly heated came later when, after a long speech by Ed Balls, Ed Miliband said: "It's like being back in the Treasury." Everyone laughed, apart from Balls, who then hit back, saying: "Tell us the answer then, Ed, like you always do."

In the opening statements, Andy Burnham set the tone for his pitch by saying: "I can give people something the Tories can't -- a leader whose background is similar to people."

David Miliband said his key mission was to fight inequality. He said, notably, that "if I was your prime minister", that would be "at the heart" of his agenda.

Diane Abbott highlighted mistakes under Labour including the 10p income-tax threshold and the Iraq invasion.

Ed Miliband said: "It's time to move on from the era of Blair and Brown and I am the best candidate to do that." He said that Labour had become a party of "technocrats", including oversights in the area of -- for example -- civil liberties. He added that Labour will win because of its values, not in spite of them.

Ed Balls attacked his non-Labour opponents and declared that the fightback against the Tories and the Liberal Democrats starts here.

After the first question, from Nicola Ormerod -- on what distinct qualities the candidates offer -- David Miliband emphasised the need to be able to make big decisions with an "iron will". He added that he would consult, but then "make decisions and stick to them".

Ed Miliband said he wants to "inspire" as a leader of a "wider movement", and pointed out that power was not worth it for its own sake.

On the Budget deficit, there was agreement between the two Eds -- not always best of friends these days -- that David Cameron is staking everything on an ideological attack on the state.

Burnham, again playing the class card, said that "we have a cabinet of millionaires" doing the cuts. David Miliband said: "We were too timid about industrial policy after -- ironically -- Peter Mandelson left the DTI." He also said the Tories are wrong to claim that deficits are in themselves wrong, arguing that in some cases they are necessary.

Diane Abbott impressed the hall when she said that David Cameron's claim that the cuts would change our way of life "doesn't mean his way of life". She also called for the scrapping of Trident, to some applause.

At one point, after Ed Balls had attacked those who "dump on our record", Ed Miliband said that was not what was being done in an honest appraisal of what went wrong, "on Iraq or any other issue". Balls nodded.

In a combative moment, after Ed Miliband backed David Miliband's policy of electing a party chair, and discussed party accountability, Ed Balls turned to him and asked him if he would have done the manifesto differently. Ed Miliband said he would have, to an extent.

Andy Burnham said that he was brought into politics by "the theatre" of Neil Kinnock versus Derek Hatton. It sounded a tiny bit glib, and David Miliband shook his head.

Moving on to more specific issues, an audience member asked whether the candidates would be positive on immigration. Abbott kicked off the answers, saying that Labour must not "play the old tunes", making out that all problems are down to immigrants (including eastern European migrants, whom Ed Balls has made an issue in this campaign). She got a huge round of applause.

Burnham took a very different line, saying that immigration had been a big issue on the doorstep.

David Miliband agreed that "immigration was an issue" in the election, but said it must be approached as a "fairness" issue, not a "racial" one. He also said that the Brown slogan of "British jobs for British workers" had produced the lesson that you should not have a "Dutch auction" on immigration, or Europe.

He then used what, for this campaign, was an unusually positive tactic, saying that to play in to such rhetoric is wrong and that if this was what party members want, "don't vote for me".

It echoed a speech by Tony Blair in which the then prime minister said of William Hague: "Asylum: we've got a problem, but ask me to exploit it in terms of race? Then vote for the other man -- I won't do it."

Ed Miliband, too, struck a positive note, challenging the idea that the free movement of labour in Europe could be restricted -- an idea floated in Ed Balls's recent Observer article.

Depressingly for some electoral reformers, none of the candidates backed proportional representation, while Burnham surprised some by saying that whether or not he supported AV would depend on narrow party interest.

Overall, all the candidates performed well. Abbott showed she was worthy of appearing on the ballot paper. Burnham had humour. Ed Balls was as combative as ever. Ed Miliband appeared the most passionate. And David Miliband the most credible.

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James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle