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.

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Commons Confidential: Herod in the House

Your weekly dose of gossip from around Westminster.

The spell cast over Theresa May by the youthful Gavin Williamson and Cronus, his pet tarantula, leaves envious Tory rivals accusing him of plotting to succeed the Stand-In Prime Minister. The wily Chief Whip is eyed suspiciously as a baby-faced assassin waiting to pounce.

My tearoom snout whispers that May is more dependent on the fresh-faced schemer (he also served as David Cameron’s PPS) who signed a survival deal bunging the DUP £1bn protection money than she is on David Davis, Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd or Boris Johnson. She delegated the reshuffle’s middle and lower ranks to Williamson, but his nous is questioned after he appointed Pudsey’s Stuart Andrew (majority: 331) and Calder Valley’s Craig Whittaker (609) as henchmen. Vulnerable seats are dangerously unprotected when whips don’t speak in the House of Commons.

Left-wing Labour MPs mutter that Jeremy Corbyn is implementing a “King Herod strategy” to prevent the birth of rival messiahs. A former shadow cabinet member insisted that any display of ambition would be fatal. The punishment snubbings of Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna, who had expressed a willingness to serve, were intended to intimidate others into obedience. The assertion was reinforced by an influential apparatchik musing: “John [McDonnell] is looking for a bag carrier, so Chuka could apply for that.” The election has laced the boot tightly on the left foot.

The military career of Barnsley’s Major Dan Jarvis included service in Northern Ireland. Perhaps old acquaintances will be renewed with the allocation to Sinn Fein’s seven MPs of a meeting room next to the Labour squaddie’s office.

Ian Lavery, the burly ex-miner appointed as Labour’s new chair by Jeremy Corbyn, disclosed that he was bombarded with messages urging him to “nut” – that is, headbutt – Boris Johnson when he faced down the Foreign Secretary on TV during the election. I suspect that even Trembling BoJo’s money would be on the Ashington lad in a class war with the Old Etonian.

Campaign tales continue to be swapped. Labour’s victorious Sharon Hodgson helped a family put up a tent. The defeated Lib Dem Sarah Olney was heckled through a letter box by a senior Labour adviser’s five-year-old son: “What’s that silly woman saying? Vote Labour!” Oddest of all was the Tory minister James Wharton informing his opponent Paul Williams that he’d put in a good word for him with Labour HQ. There was no need – Williams won.

The Tory injustice minister Dominic Raab is advertising for an unpaid Westminster “volunteer”, covering only “commuting expenses”. Does he expect them to eat at food banks?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit plague

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