TV can still influence Labour’s leadership vote

Tonight’s Channel 4 News hustings will be no holds barred.

TV debates were the defining element of the last election. Cleggmania was born after millions tuned in to the first leaders' debate and were introduced to a politician capable of using voters' first names and looking down the barrel of the camera during his closing statement. Being "televisual" matters more for politicians than ever before.

Tonight is the second televised hustings of the Labour leadership contest on Channel 4 News. It follows the disappointing Newsnight hustings in June, when Jeremy Paxman stole the show. Paxo dominated proceedings and conducted a speed-dating version of his confrontational interview style, taking few questions from the audience of former Labour voters that the production team had assembled in the studio.

Channel 4 is not going to have a studio audience, so a lot rests tonight on how Jon Snow chairs the debate. Ed Balls was said to have been frustrated by Paxman's inability to stop the Miliband brothers jumping in and talking over each other. The formal Labour hustings have used strict rules of engagement, set by the party's National Executive Committee, to stop that happening. Tonight, there will be no holds barred and Snow will be the only referee.

Channel 4's timing is perfect. Newsnight was too early in the contest and BBC Question Time -- on Thursday 16 September -- will probably be too late to affect the outcome. On Sunday, Sky News will broadcast from Ed Balls's home town of Norwich (where Labour lost both parliamentary seats) and has the chance to involve swing voters with the kind of audience participation that has so far been absent from any British political TV debate.

Very early in the Labour leadership election, Newsnight ran a mixed focus group of voters who unanimously backed David Miliband. But we don't know if that was based on their familiarity with him, up against the unelectables and the unknowns. It would be interesting for Newsnight to get the same panel back together after four months and see if they've changed their minds.

When it comes to winning over party members, the veiled endorsements from Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson could not have come at a worse time for David Miliband. His campaign team will have been delighted to have seen today's Mirror front page but dismayed by the "soap opera" and "back to the future" soundbites that are undoing all the positioning of his "post-New Labour" Keir Hardie Memorial Lecture.

Since last Wednesday's article in the Times, David Miliband has lost his voice. Others have spoken for him. The Times itself gave so much top spin to its splash ("Gloves off as Miliband rounds on his brother") that the rest of the week was dominated by others responding to the drawing of first blood.

Tonight is his chance to turn the tide once more because Snow is likely to focus more airtime on him, as the front-runner, and on his brother. The danger for David is that Ed Balls, Diane Abbott and Andy Burnham are increasingly relying on attacking him to gain their own definition, leaving his brother to rise above the fray.

TV debates could still make a difference to this contest, as clips from tonight's Channel 4 News and Sunday's Sky News debates can be embedded in the final round of all-member emails that the candidates send to get out their vote. Having completed more than 50 hustings events, the candidates are familiar with the stock of soundbites that their opponents have drawn on. Tonight, a original killer line could make all the difference.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

Richard Darlington is Head of News at IPPR. Follow him on Twitter @RDarlo.

Getty
Show Hide image

Gang of Four’s David Owen says Labour should “proudly and coherently” work with the SNP

The former Labour politician and SDP co-founder tells his old party to “face up to reality” and agree to ally with the SNP.

We don’t have an effective opposition. The question is how to make it effective. I think they should start to discuss with a view to deciding at a conference this summer on its policies. It’s just got to stop for a moment, have a pause on personalities. They’re going to have to return to personalities, they have to have a new leader. But at the moment, the issue should be: let’s get the policies right. I’m sure there are areas in which people want to see changes, but they’re obviously completely incoherent over Europe, so just let that incoherence lie.

If Labour party MPs can’t start to talk about why young people were attracted to Jeremy Corbyn, they won't find the solution. Corbyn – you can trash him like the right-wing press do every day, but they've always done that with every form of Labour leader we've ever had. I’m not defending Corbyn, I don’t think he is the right person to be leader of the Labour party and become Prime Minister.

They've got to widen their base, and they've got to widen it in an election. That doesn't stop the party having more values. The Labour party instinctively, like the country, needs to move a bit more to the left. I'm not afraid of talking more about socialism and social values. I think that would be matching the mood of the country.

Clement Attlee and the Labour party came in in 1945, and shocked everybody, including all the pundits and newspapers – they responded to a mood in the country that wanted a difference. I believe there is a mood in the country that wants a difference. They don’t want recycled Blairism.

You’ve just got to face up to reality. The fundamental thing is, where we slipped up in [the last] election, is that we were not able to answer the question – when they were ravaged and savaged about the SNP – Ed Miliband should've lost his cool. All he said during the attack about working with the SNP was that it ain't going to happen. Well, it obviously was going to happen.

What they needed to say is proudly and completely coherently: if the electorate send a Parliament back which has the SNP in substantial numbers, it is perfectly legitimate for the Labour party to work with them. Health policy – a pretty good step would be to take what’s happening in Scotland and more or less mirror it.

That is the nature of the beast, which is democracy. Even without changing the system of voting, we now have multi-parties, whether we like it or not. We were told the route through was not to create a Social Democratic Party alongside the Liberals, you had to merge with them and that there was no room for more than three political parties in Britain. Well, it’s absolute nonsense. We now have seven, you could argue. We have to live with that reality. You have to be ready to talk to them. You won’t agree with them on separation but you can agree on many other areas, or you certainly should be trying.

I think it’s asking a hell of a lot to be leader of a party, asking to be Prime Minister, when you've never performed yourself in government, you've never held a serious job anywhere else. It's a very, very big thing. He didn't want to be leader of the party, he didn't expect to be leader of the party, he stood on the basis that he was the person they all turned to on the left, and he did it, and he surprised us all. The fact that he won should be a serious message to us. The reason he won is because everybody was totally sick and fed up with the other people. We've got to face up to the fact that this has happened now twice. Is the Labour party going to go on churning out a sort of mollified form of Blairism?

David Owen is an independent social democratic peer and co-founder of the SDP.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

Lord Owen was Foreign Secretary 1977-79, a founder-member of the SDP and is now a crossbench peer.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition