And so, the hunt for Labour’s new leader continues. Speaking at the Compass annual conference on Saturday, the five candidates took to the stage in the second of a series of eagerly anticipated live debates.
Despite the high expectations of the crowd, exhilarated by a full day of progressive chatter, the debate failed to set proceedings alight. No single candidate emerged as the clear victor.
As the contenders took their seats, the chair, Polly Tonybee, announced that each had 90 seconds to set out their stall, followed by an hour of audience interrogation. She added: “I am allowed to intervene as I like.” And one hoped she might have done so a little more, as the random sample of questions was at times rambling, and was limited in scope to electoral reform, youth employment, spending cuts and education.
David Miliband opened by articulating his vision of what Labour (please note, not Next Labour) must deliver: private-sector reform, community-building, egalitarianism, internationalism and, “a different kind of politics, starting with our own party”.
The remaining candidates trotted out variations of openers familiar to many in the crowd from the first official debate, hosted by the New Statesman. Ed Miliband stressed values, with a focus on egalitarianism and reform. Ed Balls wasted no time in attacking the ConDem coalition, calling it “the biggest threat to our welfare state, to jobs and to public services” — an offensive tack that characterised his performance throughout.
Andy Burnham staked his claim on the electorate appetite’s for a leader with “a background that looks like their own, that they can trust”. Despite this populist appeal, it was Diane Abbott who roused the floor-shaking applause. “We [Labour] didn’t listen on the 10p tax rate, or going into Iraq!” she boomed to yelps of “Bravo, bravo”.
From the star-studded audience, Billy Bragg opened the questions. His probe the panel’s view on proportional representation tapped in to the widespread disappointment among electoral reformers that followed the candidates refusal to back PR at the first hustings (see James Macintyre’s report).
The Milibands and Balls conceded to reform, with Miliband Sr promising a referendum on PR. Abbott and Burnham remained resolute, consenting to the Alternative Vote system, with the latter stating that he would “go no further”. On young people, Burnham invoked his own background, and called for all internships to be advertised by law.
On the economy, David Miliband held court, bringing in macroeconomic detail and quoting Professor David Blanchflower’s warning of a double-dip recession.
The final question — whether the candidates would support Michael Gove’s Academies Bill — came from the education writer and campaigner Fiona Millar. David Miliband, a former schools minister, backed Ed Balls, who was secretary of state for children, schools and families under Brown, on proposals to extend the academies. About this, as with all too many of the questions, there was more consensus than conflict among the candidates.
If the measure of the new leader is the ability to “inspire the public, as well as the party”, as David Miliband put it, on the day it was Diane Abbott who fired the popular imagination. In the battle for ideas, Ed Miliband lead as the only candidate to support a high pay commission and 50:50 gender balance in Westminster.
The truth is, there is no single battleground on which this campaign can be fought, but the more that emerge, the easier it will be for voters to make an informed decision. Less consensus, more rumpus, fewer bridges and more fault lines are needed — for it is what the candidates disagree, rather than agree on, that will set them apart from the pack.
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