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.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

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

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