Mind your language, but don’t duck the issues

The candidates need to show leadership by saying what they would do differently.

Labour was right to turn down Sky News and refuse to televise yesterday's leadership hustings at the meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party. There are some discussions in politics that are best held behind closed doors, and in their attempts to appeal to MPs the candidates have to be mindful of what the media are reading into what they say.

Until Wednesday night, when nominations close and the New Statesman hosts the first open hustings in Westminster, Diane Abbott, Andy Burnham and John McDonnell may well be tempted to throw caution to the wind to try to get on the ballot paper.

However, serious candidates need to mind their language and beware the temptation of saying one thing during this election, if they are likely to end up saying something different at the next general election. Labour made great use of quotations from transcripts of what David Cameron said when he ran against David Davis, and you can be sure that CCHQ's media monitoring unit will spend the long, hot summer filling away ammunition that Cameron can use at PMQs when he faces the new leader of the opposition come October.

Abbott and McDonell have almost nothing to lose in the rhetorical arms race. Even if they can get on the ballot paper, you wouldn't expect them to serve in the team of "Andy MiliBalls", given that they have been so quick to condemn their backgrounds, the role they played in making New Labour an electoral force and their numerous achievements in government.

These things matter, because the left is debating not who should be our fightback figurehead, but who should be the left's candidate for prime minister. Jon Cruddas's decision not to run shows that he understands this, and his tone in the 2007 deputy leader election was marked by its focus on ideas and policy.

Being prime ministerial has to start now, and all the candidates need to mind their language. So, when David Miliband tells the GMB conference that he was responsible for Building Schools for the Future, while Ed Balls is in parliament opposing Michael Gove . . . Or when Ed Balls tells the Guardian that he hasn't travelled round the world, so he's more in touch with Britain . . . Or when both Eds reopen a divisive debate on Iraq during Saturday press interviews . . . They are all experienced political operators and know that when you swing your elbow, journalists always make sure it lands on one of your opponents.

But minding your language doesn't mean ducking the issues.

So when Ed Balls writes in the Observer, advocating a change in future immigration policy and an analysis of a decision back in 2004 that with hindsight he thinks the Labour government got wrong, he deserves some credit. Of course, he is appealing to the left and to the unions. And yes, his position rightly gets characterised as protectionist in the Times. But this weekend Balls went one step further than Ed Miliband, who was first to identify immigration as "a class issue" in his speech to the Fabian Society that launched his candidacy.

Andy Burnham may be unashamedly proud to call himself the "continuity candidate", but if he does get enough MPs to nominate him, he and David Miliband will need to address the issue of immigration and the associated policy problems of welfare reform, social housing and fair distribution of scarce resources by the state.

Labour's leadership election needs to be about policy issues and big ideas, not just about values and character. The left needs an open debate about our direction and it needs to start with candidates showing leadership by saying what they would do differently. If the candidates don't disagree, that direction will not become clear and Labour will lose again.

But, for the good of the party and for the sake of everyone who needs a government of the left, the candidates' disagreements need to be about positive policy prescriptions and not petty personality politics.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

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Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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