The Labour leadership contest kicked off in earnest tonight in the first hustings since nominations closed, with the five official candidates outlining opposing approaches to issues ranging from Iraq to immigration.
David and Ed Miliband, the two leading candidates, clashed repeatedly on the invasion of Iraq as real differences between the two brothers emerged for the first time ever.
Tensions rose after Ed Miliband said that he felt that at the time of the invasion in 2003, when he was not yet an MP, Hans Blix, the chief UN weapons inspector, should have been given “more time”. His elder brother appeared to raise his eyebrows at this point, as he did when Ed Miliband implied there had been a lack of “values” in foreign policy under Labour.
David Miliband, who was foreign secretary from 2007 until the general election, admitted that “of course” he would not have voted for the war had he known there were no WMDs, and described George W Bush as “the worst thing that ever happened to Tony Blair”, but put up a bold defence of the invasion. He also accused his brother and Ed Balls of “having it both ways” over Trident.
“We cannot fight fight this contest pandering on Iraq and Trident or we’ll be like the Tories on Europe,” one MP supporting David Miliband said afterwards.
In one of the most animated moments of the evening, Ed Miliband was pressed on why he was standing against his brother, but he didn’t take the bait, saying that “David would make an excellent leader and prime minister”.
David Miliband, for his part, repeated that if he thought Ed Miliband would make a better leader, he would be running Ed Miliband’s campaign. The impression was left that Ed was a little more generous than David about the other.
The other moment that was truly heated came later when, after a long speech by Ed Balls, Ed Miliband said: “It’s like being back in the Treasury.” Everyone laughed, apart from Balls, who then hit back, saying: “Tell us the answer then, Ed, like you always do.”
In the opening statements, Andy Burnham set the tone for his pitch by saying: “I can give people something the Tories can’t — a leader whose background is similar to people.”
David Miliband said his key mission was to fight inequality. He said, notably, that “if I was your prime minister”, that would be “at the heart” of his agenda.
Diane Abbott highlighted mistakes under Labour including the 10p income-tax threshold and the Iraq invasion.
Ed Miliband said: “It’s time to move on from the era of Blair and Brown and I am the best candidate to do that.” He said that Labour had become a party of “technocrats”, including oversights in the area of — for example — civil liberties. He added that Labour will win because of its values, not in spite of them.
Ed Balls attacked his non-Labour opponents and declared that the fightback against the Tories and the Liberal Democrats starts here.
After the first question, from Nicola Ormerod — on what distinct qualities the candidates offer — David Miliband emphasised the need to be able to make big decisions with an “iron will”. He added that he would consult, but then “make decisions and stick to them”.
Ed Miliband said he wants to “inspire” as a leader of a “wider movement”, and pointed out that power was not worth it for its own sake.
On the Budget deficit, there was agreement between the two Eds — not always best of friends these days — that David Cameron is staking everything on an ideological attack on the state.
Burnham, again playing the class card, said that “we have a cabinet of millionaires” doing the cuts. David Miliband said: “We were too timid about industrial policy after — ironically — Peter Mandelson left the DTI.” He also said the Tories are wrong to claim that deficits are in themselves wrong, arguing that in some cases they are necessary.
Diane Abbott impressed the hall when she said that David Cameron’s claim that the cuts would change our way of life “doesn’t mean his way of life”. She also called for the scrapping of Trident, to some applause.
At one point, after Ed Balls had attacked those who “dump on our record”, Ed Miliband said that was not what was being done in an honest appraisal of what went wrong, “on Iraq or any other issue”. Balls nodded.
In a combative moment, after Ed Miliband backed David Miliband’s policy of electing a party chair, and discussed party accountability, Ed Balls turned to him and asked him if he would have done the manifesto differently. Ed Miliband said he would have, to an extent.
Andy Burnham said that he was brought into politics by “the theatre” of Neil Kinnock versus Derek Hatton. It sounded a tiny bit glib, and David Miliband shook his head.
Moving on to more specific issues, an audience member asked whether the candidates would be positive on immigration. Abbott kicked off the answers, saying that Labour must not “play the old tunes”, making out that all problems are down to immigrants (including eastern European migrants, whom Ed Balls has made an issue in this campaign). She got a huge round of applause.
Burnham took a very different line, saying that immigration had been a big issue on the doorstep.
David Miliband agreed that “immigration was an issue” in the election, but said it must be approached as a “fairness” issue, not a “racial” one. He also said that the Brown slogan of “British jobs for British workers” had produced the lesson that you should not have a “Dutch auction” on immigration, or Europe.
He then used what, for this campaign, was an unusually positive tactic, saying that to play in to such rhetoric is wrong and that if this was what party members want, “don’t vote for me”.
It echoed a speech by Tony Blair in which the then prime minister said of William Hague: “Asylum: we’ve got a problem, but ask me to exploit it in terms of race? Then vote for the other man — I won’t do it.”
Ed Miliband, too, struck a positive note, challenging the idea that the free movement of labour in Europe could be restricted — an idea floated in Ed Balls’s recent Observer article.
Depressingly for some electoral reformers, none of the candidates backed proportional representation, while Burnham surprised some by saying that whether or not he supported AV would depend on narrow party interest.
Overall, all the candidates performed well. Abbott showed she was worthy of appearing on the ballot paper. Burnham had humour. Ed Balls was as combative as ever. Ed Miliband appeared the most passionate. And David Miliband the most credible.
Special subscription offer: Get 12 issues for £12 plus a free copy of Andy Beckett’s “When the Lights Went Out”.