Leadership hustings: slings and arrows fly on Mumsnet

Candidates trade barbs, slate Milburn’s defection and rail at Tory job cuts in an engaging online di

Ahead of the second reading of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill tonight, and with most newspapers and commentators having declared their preferences, the candidates chatted at lunchtime with the denizens of Mumsnet, the online talking shop regarded in Westminster as a bellwether of middle-class sentiment.

At this advanced stage of the hustings, the candidates (and the Milibands in particular) have become adept at trotting out boilerplate replies to most questions (NB: David's weapon of choice is a custard cream). However, there were several gems that showed there's still life in the campaign.

The candidates began by roundly slamming this evening's bill, Ed Miliband labeling it "a bill with AV window-dressing which tries to rig the parliamentary boundaries and abolishes public inquiries that have been in place since 1947". He also rebutted claims that he is indecisive on critical issues, citing "tough decisions in government from supporting the expansion of nuclear power to taking on international opposition to deliver the Copenhagen climate-change agreement" from his tenure as energy secretary.

David Miliband weighed in on the current peace talks, saying that the "absence of a Palestinian state is the biggest failure of international diplomacy and the greatest threat to the stability of all countries in the Middle East, including Israel", and citing his expulsion of Israeli diplomats following the Mossad assasination in Dubai. He studiously avoided comment on whether, should his brother win, he would be "man enough" to accept a cabinet role.

In a bagatelle indicative of his wider campaign, Andy Burnham suffered laptop trouble that left him out of much of the debate. He did manage to get in his message about improving opportunities for poorer people and a top dig at Clegg re: Alan Milburn's defection: "I really don't know why Clegg brought in Alan Milburn to advise on social mobility as he seems to be pretty skilled at social climbing himself", and chiming in agreement with a questioner's contention that it was "unfair" for David Miliband to be able to call on a sizeable war chest for the campaign. True to his expertise, Burnham was also the first to take up a detailed question on the iniquities of life as a carer.

Diane Abbott continued to set herself apart, branding her rivals "trapped in the New Labour dogma" on Trident, and issuing a thinly-veiled démarche to David M, warning of the poor electoral prospects of "just a youthful face fronting up the same old New Labour attitudes". She argued that "it is difficult to see how a leader who has never done a job outside the Westminster bubble and who has come up through the New Labour machine can be seen as the change that the public wants to see".

In answer to a question on special advisers, Abbott said: "I have no advisers on this campaign. I was never a New Labour minister, so I fell into the (possibly dangerous) [habit] of thinking for myself and writing my own speeches."

She also rubbished George Osborne's "neoliberal" stance on employment: that there will be "private-sector jobs waiting for people to step into" following the 600,000 public-sector job cuts slated for after the spending review.

Ed Balls put in a restrained and friendly turn, condensing his Bloomberg speech to a few lines and revealing that he is a shortly to meet a young penpal with Asperger's syndrome. He also rebutted the "bully" tag: "If you have a surname like mine, you know what bullying is like when you are a child. I hate bullies, I think they are cowards."

Balls also took the opportunity to attack the idea that the next leader should appeal to the right-wing press, saying: "If the price we pay for that is Labour supporters saying 'You're all the same' and not turning out in the election, then that seems to me a pretty unwise way to choose a leader to win elections."

Each lively hustings event reveals more about the candidates, and today's debate survived the transition online well. The candidates as a group seemed to attract a positive reponse from the often catty Mumsnetters.

The next debate will be at the TUC in Manchester on 13 September.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.