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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The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.