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7 June 2007

Complete Control

The New Statesman's political editor finds himself overwhelmed by the New Labour machine

By Martin Bright

I was delighted to be asked to chair last night’s Labour leadership hustings and it was a hugely enjoyable experience all in all. It was something of a jamboree, but the deputy leadership debate was genuinely engaging. For the most part people stuck around despite the England-Estonia match being on the telly.

In front of an audience of trade unionists Gordon Brown was very relaxed and actually seemed to be having a good time. He was happy to take questions from the floor and dealt with some tricky issues from drug legalisation (he’s against it) through to cluster bombs (he’ll see what he can do). At one point it even became a bit rock ‘n’ roll as Gordon swung a foot and connected with a loudspeaker which flew off the stage.

Most of the six deputy leadership candidates have become well-practised at sticking to a minute for each answer (there are timers on the stage), although Harriet Harman frankly struggled. Their answers were generally to the point. I was very interested in the way each candidate nuanced his or her position on Iraq.

Most interesting was Harman, who said that if she knew then what she knows now, she would not have voted for the war. This from a woman who was very close to the process of drawing up the legal advice on the war. Only Hilary Benn remained genuinely consistent to his original position, saying he still believed it was right to intervene and that all progressives should back the fledgling democracy in Iraq.

I was slighty surprised to be presented with a script (including one very poor joke), but took this as a sign of impeccable New Labour organisation rather than control-freakery. I also had an earpiece connected to a fierce Labour official who ordered me to tell the candidates to wrap it up from time to time. Unfortunately, it’s easy to get carried away in these situations. I was told to keep a close eye on the speakers and those asking questions and was very smug about how strict I was being. Then, right at the end, I had to spoil it. As the man in my earpiece told me to bring proceedings to a halt, a dignified older member of the audience stood up and demanded to ask a question. I told him that this was not permitted, but he persisted in asking the candidates what they would do to stop the party losing members. I told him that the event had come to an end, so he never received his answer from the platform.

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To their credit, some of the candidates talked to him afterwards, but I apologise to him now for cutting him off. It was nearly my Walter Wolfgang moment and I can feel myself blushing as I recall it.

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