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.

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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.