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22 May 2007

Meeting the next deputy leader

Tom Marchbanks meets the people who want to be the next leader of the Labour Party - well except for

By Tom Marchbanks

I would never have found the address if it hadn’t been for three burly men hovering outside the small front garden. It was, after all, an unremarkable South London house and a rather strange venue perhaps to pack in five deputy leadership candidates and the members of the Streatham Constituency Labour Party (CLP).

After a careful check of my party membership card I was ushered inside to find the organisers of this social on the edgy side.

Fewer than 10 party members were sat blankly amongst copious bottles of drink and Marks and Spencer’s party snacks.

Looking somewhat neglected was Peter Hain, the first to arrive from the earlier Coventry hustings (perhaps thanks to his Special Branch escort). But as Benn, Blears, Harman and Cruddas discreetly arrived, the number of CLP minions swelled and everyone relaxed. Only Johnson couldn’t make it.

Streatham is a racially mixed constituency and this was refreshingly evident in the audience as they chatted excitedly among themselves. The audience was a mix of political careerists, no- nonsense councillors, anoraks and messy children.

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As the candidates mingled among us, constantly observed by their overstrung chaperones, it became clear that to get past the jovial chitchat a few blunt questions where needed.

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But the responses to my “why should I vote for you?” were disappointing. All except Harman told me they wanted to act as a bridge between the grassroots and government – an obvious requirement for a deputy leader.

Equally flat was Harman who preferred to focus on winning the next election and her proven track record with Gordon Brown.

While the candidates didn’t appear to differ in promises, they certainly differed in personality and enthusiasm.

Blears the most enthusiastic, verged on the over-keen when she appeared to question the suitability of a future Foreign Secretary becoming deputy leader of the party as well. A reference which I and others took to be levelled at the affable Hilary Benn. Most peculiar was the ambivalence of Cruddas, who left me pondering whether he had only joined the race to ensure the contest wasn’t solely held within the cabinet.

Cruddas’ unshaven working man’s hero persona was appealing however. And he looked more grassroots than the slightly aloof Harman.

After a couple of hours the candidates downed their glasses of water and made their excuses. Local MP and Blair’s PPS Keith Hill was left to describe the event as an “example of the learning listen process of Brown”. It was “good for the candidates to interact so directly”.

Most of the CLP were equally impressed, particularly by Harriet Harman. Clearly they had been rather star struck by the whole affair, so much so that important questions about the actual point of Deputy Leader had been forgotten.

Perhaps the most interesting observation of the whole social was the painful lengths – despite the house’s sardine tin feel – that each candidate went to avoid the other. Perhaps they’ve grown sick of the sight of one another.