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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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.