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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.