Last night’s debate was a missed opportunity

There was no Gillian Duffy moment after all.

Yesterday I predicted that Newsnight could produce a Gillian Duffy/Sharon Storer/Joe the Plumber moment. I was wrong. Last night's televised Labour leadership debate was summed up by this tweet:

Yeah well done audience. For sitting there in silence while Paxo asked all the questions. Hope you feel valued.

Having picked 20 former Labour voters to form the studio audience, they managed to ask just two questions: the first about why none of them stood against Gordon Brown and the other on deficit reduction. Jeremy Paxman encouraged just one comeback from the audience, but the man in the green jumper (James) said he wasn't satisfied with any of the answers.

Errr . . . this many be a little bit harsh . . . but I'll risk it . . . Ask a silly question . . . You know the rest. The reason none of the politicians stood against Brown was that they are politicians. And given that the only person who can be Labour leader is a politician, the man in the green jumper was only ever going to get a politician's answer.

On deficit reduction (the question from Roger), all of the candidates were on-message with Alistair Darling. Labour cannot let the Tories and Lib Dems get away with blaming the deficit on reckless spending. The deficit is the price we are now paying for stopping the financial crisis causing a global banking meltdown and preventing the recession from turning into a depression.

Another tweet complained: "candidates should have spent more time on proper argument4the country rather than arguing with each other." Others complained about candidates using "pre-prepared answers and soundbites". But that is what TV debates are all about, and when five candidates have just 45 minutes of airtime to fight over, they are inevitably going to cut across each other while trying to condense their message into memorable one-liners.

None of the candidates managed to get the first rule of TV debate technique right. Rule number one: During your opening statement, look down the barrel of the camera and talk to the voter on the sofa in his living room. None of them did it. Andy Burnham, Ed and David Miliband did slightly better in applying rule number two: when answering a question from a studio audience member, use his or her name in your reply and reflect empathy with the point that their question raises before you set out your own position, in your own words. But they all handled Jeremy Paxman's cross-examination reasonably well and none of them gaffed.

The exchange on civil liberties revealed a few new positions. David Miliband said 90-day pre-trial detention for terror suspects was wrong, while Ed Balls said Labour went too far in allowing terror powers to be used in non-terrorist situations. Ed Miliband said mistakes were made on ID cards, while Diane Abbott dug in on her record for rebellion on civil liberties issues, leaving Andy Burnham to defend the previous leadership on CCTV and the DNA database.

But perhaps most interesting was the question about the size of the state. Ed Balls and Diane Abbott instantly defended the size of the state. At previous hustings, Balls has talked about being "a voice for the voiceless" and last night Abbott passionately defended the need for the state to support the poor and the vulnerable. One of her best lines in previous hustings was to say that when David Cameron says "public spending cuts 'are going to affect all of our lives', he doesn't mean they are going to affect his life, he means they are going to affect your life".

David Miliband said the state got too big, but his example, of a friend who was told he would not be allowed with his children in a swimming pool because three was too many to look after, seemed to dodge the bigger questions of reform. Ed Miliband stressed the need for the state to invest in green jobs for the future.

When Paxman followed up with a question about whether the state was too centralised, both Milibands answered "yes" in unison. Abbott and Balls both went for "no" when forced to give a one-word answer. Andy Burnham spoke against localism because of the effect of postcode lotteries.

But David Miliband called for more powers to be devolved to English local government outside London. He said that Labour was unable to argue against the vacuous notion of the "big society" because the party was too associated with the centralised state, and that explains why Labour won just ten seats out of 213 in the three southern English regions. Ed Miliband also called for greater power for local government and used local bus services as his example.

Last night's TV debate was a missed opportunity for Newsnight and I hope that Channel 4 is not put off by not having got to do it first. Only a few thousand party members will have the chance to attend one of the hustings. Labour needs this leadership debate to include the widest possible number of voters -- not just those already inside the party, but those Labour needs to join. TV is still the most powerful medium in politics and Labour needs to use it again.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

Photo: Getty
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Brexit Big Brother is watching: how media moguls control the news

I know the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph well, and I don’t care to see them like this.

It would take a heart of stone now not to laugh at an illustration of Theresa May staring defiantly out at Europe from the British coast, next to the headline “Steel of the new Iron Lady”.

Those are, however, the words that adorned the front page of the Daily Mail just five months ago, without even a hint of sarcasm. There has been so much written about the Prime Minister and the strength of her character – not least during the election campaign – and yet that front page now seems toe-curlingly embarrassing.

Reality has a nasty habit of making its presence felt when news is remorselessly selected, day in and day out, to fit preconceived points of view. May and her whole “hard Brexit” agenda – which the public has now demonstrated it feels, at best, only half-heartedly enthusiastic about – has been an obsession of several British newspapers, not least the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph.

I know these papers well, having spent the best part of a quarter-century working for them, and I don’t care to see them like this. When I worked there, a degree of independent thought was permitted on both titles. I joined the Telegraph in 2002; at the time, my colleagues spoke with pride of the paper’s tolerance to opposing views. And when I was at the Mail, it happily employed the former Labour MP Roy Hattersley.

Would I be able to run positive stories about, say, my mate Gina Miller – who successfully campaigned for parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process – in the Telegraph if I were there today? Or at the Daily Mail? Dream on: it’s two minutes of hate for that “enemy of the people”.

Morale in these newsrooms must be low. I am finding that I have to allow an extra half-hour (and sometimes an extra bottle) for lunches with former colleagues these days, because they always feel the need to explain that they’re not Brexiteers themselves.

Among the Telegraph characters I kept in touch with was Sir David Barclay, who co-owns the paper with his brother, Sir Frederick. Alas, the invitations to tea at the Ritz (and the WhatsApp messages) came to an abrupt halt because of you-know-what.

I don’t think Sir David was a bad man, but he got a Brexit bee in his bonnet. I was conscious that he was close to Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, and both had cordial relations with Rupert Murdoch. It became clear that they had all persuaded themselves (and perhaps each other) that Brexit suited their best interests – and they are all stubborn.

It seems to me unutterably sad that they didn’t sound out more of their factory-floor staff on this issue. We journalists have never been the most popular people but, by and large, we all started out wanting to make the world a better place. We certainly didn’t plan to make it worse.

People used to tell me that papers such as the Daily Mail and the Telegraph changed because the country had but, even in the darkest days, I didn’t agree with that premise. We are in the mess we’re in now because of personalities – in newspapers every bit as much as in politics. The wrong people in the wrong jobs, at the wrong time.

Would the Daily Mail have backed Brexit under Dacre’s predecessor David English? It is hard to imagine. He was a committed and outward-looking Europhile who, in the 1970s, campaigned for the country to join the EU.

I can think of many Telegraph editors who would have baulked at urging their readers to vote Leave, not least Bill Deedes. Although he had his Eurosceptic moments, a man as well travelled, compassionate and loyal to successive Conservative prime ministers would never have come out in favour of Brexit.

It says a great deal about the times in which we live that the Daily Mirror is just about the only paper that will print my stuff these days. I had a lot of fun writing an election diary for it called “The Heckler”. Morale is high there precisely because the paper’s journalists are allowed to do what is right by their readers and, just as importantly, to be themselves.

Funnily enough, it reminded me of the Telegraph, back in the good old days. 

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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