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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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.