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 Tories play Game of Thrones while the White Walkers from Brussels advance

The whole premise of the show is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

If you’re a fan of asking “who’s that, then?” and “is that the one who killed the other one’s brother?”, I bring great news. Game of Thrones is back for a seventh series. Its vast assortment of characters was hard enough to keep track of before half of them got makeovers. But now the new Queen Cersei has reacted to the arrival of the long winter by investing heavily in the kind of leather ball gowns sold by goth shops in Camden, and Euron Greyjoy, once a fairly bland sailor, has come back as a Halloween costume version of Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, all eyeliner and epaulettes.

The show’s reliance on British character actors is the only thing keeping me vaguely on top of the cast list: what’s Diana Rigg up to these days in Highgarden? And what about that guy who was in Downton Abbey that time, who now has the scaly arms? (Luckily, the next thing I watched after the Game of Thrones series premiere was the first two episodes of the revived Twin Peaks, which put my confusion into perspective. There, Agent Cooper spent most of his time talking to a pulsating bladder attached to one of those fake trees you get from Ikea when your landlord won’t let you have real plants.)

The day-to-day business of Game of Thrones has always been power – answering the question of who will sit on the Iron Throne, forged by Aegon the Conqueror from the swords of his defeated enemies. But its backdrop is a far bigger threat: the arrival of a winter that will last many years, and the invasion of an army of the undead.

That might seem like an unkind way to think about Michel Barnier and his fellow Brexit negotiators – inexorably marching towards us, briefing papers in hand, while Liam Fox frantically rings a bell at the entrance to the Channel Tunnel – but nonetheless, the whole premise of Game of Thrones is a pretty good metaphor for the current state of British politics.

The current internal Conservative struggle for power might be vicious but it is at least familiar to its contestants; they know which weapons to deploy, which alliances are vital, who owes them a favour. Meanwhile, the true challenge facing every one of them is too frightening to contemplate.

In 2013, this magazine celebrated the early success of the show with a cover depicting one of our terrifying painted mash-ups: “The Tory Game of Thrones.” Our casting has been strangely vindicated. George Osborne was our Jaime Lannister – once the kind of uncomplicated bastard who would push a child out of a window but now largely the purveyor of waspish remarks about other, worse characters. Our Cersei was Theresa May, who spent the early seasons of The Cameron Era in a highly visible but underwritten role. Now, she has just seized power, only to discover herself beset by enemies on all sides. (Plus, Jeremy Corbyn as the High Sparrow would quite like her to walk penitently through the streets while onlookers cry “shame!”)

Michael Gove was our Tyrion Lannister, the kind of man who would shoot his own father while the guy was on the loo (or run a rival’s leadership campaign only to detonate it at the last minute). Jeremy Hunt was Jon Snow, slain by the brotherhood of the Night Shift at A&E, only in this case still waiting for resurrection.

The comparison falls down a bit at Boris Johnson as Daenerys Targaryen, as the former London mayor has not, to my knowledge, ever married a horse lord or hired an army of eunuchs, but it feels like the kind of thing he might do.

We didn’t have David Davis on there – hated by the old king, David Camareon, he was at the time banished to the back benches. Let’s retrospectively appoint him Euron Greyjoy, making a suspiciously seductive offer to Queen Cersei. (Philip Hammond is Gendry, in that most of the country can’t remember who he is but feel he might turn out to be important later.)

That lengthy list shows how Conservative infighting suffers from the same problem that the Game of Thrones screenwriters wrestle with: there are so many characters, and moving the pieces round the board takes up so much time and energy, that we’re in danger of forgetting why it matters who wins. In the books, there is more space to expound on the politics. George R R Martin once said that he came away from The Lord of The Rings asking: “What was Aragorn’s tax policy?” (The author added: “And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?”)

Martin’s fantasy vision also feels relevant to the Tories because its power struggles aren’t about an “endless series of dark lords and their evil minions who are all very ugly and wear black clothes”. Instead, everyone is flawed. In Westeros, as in the Conservative Party, it can be difficult to decide who you want to triumph. Sure, Daenerys might seem enlightened, but she watched her brother have molten gold poured down his throat; plucky Arya Stark might tip over from adorable assassin into full-blown psychopath. Similarly, it’s hard to get worked up about the accusation that Philip Hammond said that driving a train was so easy “even a woman” could do it, when David Davis marked his last leadership campaign by posing alongside women in tight T-shirts reading “It’s DD for me”.

The only big difference from the show is that in real life I have sympathy for Barnier and the White Walkers of Brussels. Still, maybe it will turn out that the undead of Game of Thrones are tired of the Seven Kingdoms throwing their weight around and are only marching south to demand money before negotiating a trade deal? That’s the kind of plot twist we’re all waiting for.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder