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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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear