A few reflections on the Labour leadership Newsnight debate

Ed Miliband really wants the job.

I have been late to the party when it comes to last night's BBC Newsnight debate with the Labour leadership candidates, about which much has already been said, including on this blog.

So I'll stick to a few quick thoughts, ignoring questions of format and sticking instead to some of the comments made by candidates.

One of the most striking elements of the debate was the behaviour of Ed Miliband, who left no doubt at all that he is fighting, hard, to beat his own brother and win this contest. He said he wanted to be "prime minister" in his introduction and repeatedly attempted to interrupt David Miliband, on one occasion saying that Labour's fortunes were down to "more fundamental" issues than those which were being discussed. He seemed to have had a haircut, wore a smart pink tie, and peered straight into the camera, Nick Clegg-style, as much as he could.

David Miliband, perhaps the most consistently impressive candidate in the hustings, seemed a tiny bit subdued; perhaps he was simply given less airtime. But his pitch at the start, in which he outlined what is "real about me", was highly effective, as was his invoking the memory of Tony Crosland at the end.

The first question was about Gordon Brown, and it was striking that Ed Balls, supposedly the former prime minister's most loyal ally, was the most condemnatory, accusing him of having been proved "out of touch" in his encounter with Gillian Duffy. Both David Miliband, who critics assume was somehow disloyal to Brown, and Ed Miliband said it would be a "grave error" to blame Labour's election defeat on one moment of the campaign.

David Miliband said he didn't stand in 2007 "because I was not ready to be prime minister", but that "changing the leader" would not have been enough. The problems for the party, he said, went back to 2006, after which there wasn't a root-and-branch change of approach. He also pointedly hit out at "negative briefing".

Diane Abbott, for her part, tried to portray herself as "the people's candidate" as opposed to the "Westminster insider's candidate", but then emphasised that she had been in the Commons longer than anyone else on the platform, and knew Westminster well as a result.

Andy Burnham repeated his outsider pitch, and made a direct appeal to the unions, but the point of his candidacy may have still appeared a little unclear to the party if not the viewing public.

Depressingly, there was once again much discussion of immigration, with Burnham and Balls taking a tough line and the Milibands, while accepting it was "an issue on the doorstep", emphasising the "underlying issues" of housing and jobs. Abbott rightly said it would be a grave error to blame Labour's defeat on that issue.

But it was Ed Miliband who made the most controversial pitch, saying: "I don't see a contradiction between standing up for values and winning an election, because you can't have victory without values". Other candidates, including his brother David, may feel they too have values. But Ed is determined to portray himself as the "credible change candidate".

In this unpredictable leadership election, it remains to be seen whether he will overtake his authoritative brother.

Watch this space for my feature in this week's magazine on the background to David and Ed Miliband's fight for the leadership.

 

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.