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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear