GUEST POST – Blogging the Labour Leadership Contest, part 1

Cory writes: We have the first ever guest post on Paperback Rioter today! Cue riotous celebrations:

Hannah has very kindly offered to blog about the Labour leadership contest. Here’s her first post, about a leadership hustings:

After failing to appease Nick Clegg and secure a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Gordon Brown stepped down. So since May, the Labour party has been without a permanent leader, and by extension, the country has been without a permanent leader of the opposition. Acting leader Harriet Harman has managed to put up a competent fight against David Cameron at PMQs, but Labour needs a strong, stable leader to present a coherent unified stance, and capitalise on the vulnerable position the coalition’s controversial policies has put itself in.  In September Labour MPs, members and affiliates will install a new leader. They can choose from a shortlist of five, consisting of the Miliband brothers – David and Ed, close Brown ally Ed Balls, New Labour Loyalist Andy Burnham, and backbench rebel Diane Abbott. I must admit to initially feeling pessimistic that amongst the careerists and the light-weight New Labour clones could be found a leader of similar standing to the much-maligned Brown.  Having seen the nominees stake their various policy tents across the Internet and mainstream media, I’m beginning to feel cautiously optimistic that this period of opposition will allow Labour to renew itself as a party worthy of Government.

Last week I got the opportunity to see the candidates speak in person at the Christian Socialist Movement hustings in London.  It’s quite surreal to see people you’ve known for years as abstract figures of Government in flesh and blood.  What’s even more surreal is, having acclimatised yourself to seeing them as ordinary mortals, to suddenly have them behave like politicians, and the Milibands, in particular were quintessential politicians.

David’s opening speech had obviously been perfectly calibrated (he thought) to the audience – he cited the Sermon on the Mount as his favourite example of the influence of Christianity on left-wing politics, and, while being upfront about his own atheism, was keen to assert his respect for religious communities – and was a study in perfectly measured, centrist inoffensiveness.  His speech and mannerisms were startlingly reminiscent of Tony Blair, and much as he has tried to distance himself from the Prime Minister who first promoted him to ministerial office, it is obvious that he is the heir to this style of politics.

Ed, on the other hand, aggressively “orated”, in a way that made him look faintly preposterous (see this video for a sample of his speaking style, except where, in the video, he addresses the audience as “conference” he addressed us as “comrades” – in a perfect estuarine accent – I for one found it very hard to keep a straight face).  However, he came into his own in the Q&A setting out what was obviously a very well thought through political strategy, reiterating his commitment to definitively centre-left policies on income equality, flexible working and the greater representation of women in government.

Ed Balls had a very straightforward speaking style, there was no hint of artifice as there, perhaps, was with the Milibands.  He came across as the most overtly partisan and the most keen to attack the coalition directly, particularly on the budget.  He was very jovial in the run up to the hustings and, in my opinion, didn’t live up at all to the image the media has constructed for him.  He told one very significant story about how, during his time as advisor to the Treasury, they were being lobbied by the Jubilee 2000 Third World debt relief campaign.  Their offices were surrounded by protestors, shouting and tooting horns, and they were inundated with campaign postcards.  At first they were irritated, but they soon came to realise that in fact this direct pressure was helpful to them.  Eventually they approached the leaders and thanked them and asked them to please lobby the German Finance Ministry as well!

Diane Abbott, was flamboyantly herself, and a very fascinating speaker to listen to.  She made a couple of direct appeals to her “alternative” credentials, to the other, white, male, Oxford educated candidates, which came across as slightly clunking.  Towards the end made the reasonably apt point that men have an expectation of a very stereotyped, macho, display of strength from politicians that can shut women out, however she made this point in her typical, very direct style, whilst the four gentlemen, on the podium, sniggered in the background.  Overall, she made a very engaging speaker and set forth an interesting and nuanced left-wing stance, similar to that that Ed Miliband was trying to stake out for himself, but with a stronger radical position on, for example, immigration and Trident, and more appeals to her impeccable left wing voting credentials thrown in (as well she might).  Also, interestingly, she seemed confident enough in her progressive stance to throw in a little nuance here and there, emphasising the increasing social and cultural dimension of the deprivation, she witnessed in her constituency, on top of the historic, material, poverty that it was known for, with increasing family breakdown and children coming to school lacking very basic life skills. It came across that her political views were born of experience in a way that the younger Miliband’s – though a very well constructed academic and intellectual position- were not.

Finally, Andy Burnham gave a fairly mediocre performance, very little that was particularly objectionable, but nothing really memorable, or original either.  He engaged the audience, as the only practicing Christian (Roman Catholic) by saying that politicians had much to learn from the Churches but also that the Churches had much to gain from listening to politicians.  He  singled out the Roman Catholic church’s very inflexible lobbying style on  certain moral issues.  While this was a point well made about the Catholic Church’s own peculiar political style it seemed to fundamentally miss the point of direct political action.

So what can we conclude?  I felt that Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, and Diane Abbott came out on top – although it’s hard to give more precise rankings than that – and David Miliband and Andy Burnham were weaker.

I will blog on the candidates’ platforms, as presented through the media next week, looking particularly closely at the Guardian’s Web chats.

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4 Responses to GUEST POST – Blogging the Labour Leadership Contest, part 1

  1. John H says:

    Interesting. I was at the same event, and agree a lot of what you say about it: especially Ed M’s “faintly preposterous” oratory in his opening statement – though what frustrated me even more was that his opening statement completely ignored the question that had actually been posed. But at first he did seem to think he was delivering a barnstorming conference speech rather than addressing a fairly mild-mannered gathering of (a) Christian politics nerds and (b) other politics nerds willing to put up with (a) for the evening. 😉

    I also agree with you that Ed Balls came across much better than I’d expected, and I certainly respect his willingness to take the battle to the Tories/Liberals. Also that Andy Burnham was pretty mediocre.

    Where I disagree is over David Miliband, who I was the most impressed by of the five (to my considerable surprise – turned up as an Ed Miliband supporter). Yes, he undoubtedly calibrated his message for his audience more than the others – but that in itself is a leadership skill…

    I blogged my own reflections on the hustings here. I’d score it as David M, then Ed B, then Ed M, then Diane A, then Andy B bringing up the rear. In my post I say Ed M was the “most disappointing”, but that’s because I’d had higher expectations of him than of Andy B!

  2. Hannah says:

    I’ve seen your blog post and agree with your disappointment with Ed Miliband. Like I say, it seems that both the Milibands are politicians by nature, and I think that David, as the more experienced of the two, is more subtle in how he pitches his speech to the audience, whereas Ed has his points that he wants to make, in service of the political stance he’s constructed, and delivers them regardless of the audience. My impression of DM, though, was that his speech is very deliberately tuned to the audience in a way that, perhaps, masks whatever his underlying ideology is. However, I’m aware that I may be prejudiced against him because of the baggage he carries from the last to governments.

    I can see the attraction of David Miliband, because he has a lot of experience, is able to present well and would be able to sink very easily into the leadership role, but I think that style of politics would be a continuation of the Party’s past mistakes rather than a break with them. I like that Ed M seems more ideological, even if he, perhaps, isn’t as polished a politician yet.

    On Ed Balls, I was very impressed with his performance but agree that he is too unpopular to be electable because he seems to have garnered this, very unfair, Media image. It’s a shame, but goes to show how the media can manufacture truths, if they want to, just by repeating them often enough. My Mum made the analogy with Michael Foot (before my time) and his donkey jacket that wasn’t a donkey jacket.

    It’s interesting that there seems to have been this push from the start to drive the choice towards the Milibands. Of the two I’d probably still pick Ed as the best realistic option, and I agree that Ed Balls would make a good shadow chancellor.

    Out of interest, how did you come across this post? I’ve just had a look at your blogs, and they look interesting. Thanks for commenting.


  3. John H says:

    Hannah: thanks for the reply. I could live with either Miliband as leader, and haven’t totally made up my mind between them yet (though I’d say I’m rather more likely to vote for David than for Ed).

    I think someone posted a link to this on Twitter. 🙂

  4. Pingback: My open reply to Ed Miliband’s letter « Paperback Rioter

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