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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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.