Newsnight could blow open Labour leadership contest

First fully televised debate will be the talk of the town tomorrow.

Tonight's edition of Newsnight is going to include the first live televised hustings of the Labour leadership contest. This will be the biggest audience for any hustings so far and is going to have a very different dynamic.

All politicians respect Jeremy Paxman and all the candidates have already done one-on-one interviews with him on the show. But tonight's Newsnight is going to include a studio audience, not of committed party members who will cheer for their chosen candidate, but an audience of swing and former Labour voters. If one of them passionately challenges a candidate, we could get the equivalent of the Gillian Duffy/Sharon Storer/Joe the Plumber moment of this contest.

When Newsnight put together a focus group earlier in the contest, nine swing and former Labour voters unanimously picked David Miliband out as their choice, after being shown clips of their speeches from last year's party conference. Partly on the back of that focus group, David Miliband's supporters began to argue that he was the was the candidate who could win back the support of all sections of society and refresh Labour's offer to reach parts of the electorate that others couldn't reach.

That, however, was before Diane Abbott entered the race. Abbott probably has more TV experience than any of them because of her weekly This Week slot. And we shouldn't forget that David Miliband's campaign made a conscious decision to give her the nominations she needed to get on the ballot paper.

Time will tell whether that was a politically strategic masterstroke or New Labour's final blunder. At last week's New Statesman hustings, David and Diane clashed on Trident and Iraq in exchanges that can't have helped him win any votes in the party, though no doubt his arguments would have had greater resonance with the electorate. At every hustings so far, the audience has been packed with the politically engaged left, not the aspirational hard-working families of rural Kent, Bedfordshire or Buckinghamshire.

Ed Balls has had recent experience of a Newsnight hustings in the show on education before the last election. But there will be no Michael Gove on the panel tonight. At every hustings so far, Balls has been the strongest in terms of attacking the Lib-Con coalition, last night saying that Nick Clegg was a man who would stop at nothing to gain power, even supporting a regressive rise in VAT. The problem for Balls is that the very limited polling of party members available -- just 650 techno-literate LabourListers -- shows him falling to get a popular return for this formidable Tory and Lib Dem bashing.

Andrew Neil put the four ex-ministers to the test during the election when the Daily Politics ran six hustings on foreign policy, health, education and climate change, as well as crime and immigration. David Miliband more than held his own against the formidable William Hague and Ed Miliband absolutely wiped the floor with Greg Clark (remember him?) while managing to distinguish himself from Simon Hughes and the Green spokesman Darren Johnson.

Last night's hustings at the Institute of Education was the most jovial, but TV is very different. The candidates are getting more comfortable in each other's presence. There is a comradely camaraderie developing between the five of them as they put the hours in and travel the country. They are all having a shared experience. Yet the atmosphere in the Newsnight green room tonight will be very different.

Any slip-ups, gaffes or controversial talking points will get played out at branch and ward meetings across the country and in newspaper columns for the rest of this week. Tonight could be the first impression that many party and union members get of all five contenders standing side by side, giving them the chance to make a snapshot comparison.

Whatever the Labour Party equivalent of a water cooler moment is, it is likely to happen tonight. "Did you see Newsnight last night?" will be the question du jour for Labour tomorrow.

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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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.