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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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