Last week I looked at the leadership candidates’ performance at a live hustings. Now I’m going to look at their wider agendas as reported through the media, and in particular the live webchats they gave at the Guardian’s website.
Ed Balls was the first of the Labour Leadership candidates to face Guardian CIF commenters, on 15 June. He was the third candidate, and the first non-Miliband, to receive the required 33 nominations and has been endorsed by Ken Livingston, but has, thus far, received the weakest support from the wider party, with supporting nominations from only 10 Constituency Labour Parties (CLP), and the union CWU. He is perhaps the most aggressively partisan of the candidates, as well being heavily implicated in the factionalism that beset the party throughout its time in office. As I wrote last week, however, he comes across as very genial, in a way that belies his reputation.
He answered a wide range of questions from Guardian commenters. He made a few strong bids to the left, as you would expect, defending continued deficit spending and refuting the suggestion that public sector pensions are excessive compared to the private sector, describing it as a “complete fiction”.
When asked to list Labour’s top five failings while in government, he gave immigration, Iraq (capitalizing on his not being in Parliament at the time of the invasion), tuition fees, the scrapping of the 10p tax rate and rates. However, he made a couple of incursions into more traditionally conservative territory- defending the use of PFI to fund hospital and school rebuilds and arguing for a renegotiation of unlimited migration within the EU as outlined in this article.
He tackled personal criticisms head on, answering the charge that he had been a member of the Conservative Association while at Oxford (he had, but only so he could see their speakers). Interestingly when asked whether the Conservatives would be comfortable with him as Labour Leader, he answered no, in spite of Tory pronouncements to the contrary, recounting that the then Labour Leadership had tried to pull the same trick in the Conservative leadership contests, with Ken Clarke and David Cameron, succeeding in the first instance. A more natural politician might not have been so candid. He also directly accused other candidates’ teams of hostile briefing but denied that he had been, in any way, involved in this tactic.
The next candidate to face questions was Ed Miliband on 16 June. Ed Miliband is currently the second favourite after his brother David, but is fast gaining momentum and currently holds nominations from: 63 MPs, 6MEPs, including the leader of the Labour Group in the European Parliament, 106 CLPs, and 4 Trade Unions, including the large and influential GMB and Unison. He has also won the backing of the affiliated Socialist Health Association and a number of Old Labour grandees, including Neil and Glenys Kinnock and the wife of the late John Smith. He was responsible for writing the 2010 Labour Manifesto which took a more progressive tone than New Labour had previously, while in government, and, since putting himself forward as Leader, has continued to tack to the left, launching campaigns for a living wage, a shorter working week and, in the statement that won over the SHA, called for better Mental Health provision and a National Care Service. I felt that his webchat was the most disappointing: focusing on the broad principles on which he was campaigning, without giving much in the way of detail. He reiterated his emphasis on “values” and commitment to a living wage and a high wage commission, and defended Labour’s record while in office and his own achievements as Climate Change Secretary.
There were a couple of interesting points though. He came out against exclusive means-tested social security, in favour of votes at sixteen and, when asked for his position on Israel, said that the UK should be a “critical friend” of Israel, naming the Gaza blockade and the Flotilla attack as particular areas of concern. In my view, it is problematic to have particular friendships with other countries, in particular in the context of complex international disputes, however, it is encouraging that Israel won’t be given a free ride by a Miliband leadership.
Andy Burnham followed on the 17th. He has positioned himself as the most consistently loyal to the governments in which he served throughout his time in office, distancing himself from the factions and personality disputes. Seeking to position himself as the figurehead for Labour’s heartlands, Burnham has made much of his working class, non-Oxbridge background. Despite this, he only just managed to gather the required number of nominations in time, but has now received the support of 30 CLPs, 1 MEP and the National Union of Labour and Socialist Clubs.
Firstly, what was good about his answers? He supports the idea of a national care service, and gave a reasonable account of how it would be funded, suggesting a 10% estate tax capped at £50,000 per couple. He also accepted that the Labour Government had made a mistake in allowing house prices to grow so high while failing to build more social housing, and reaffirmed workers’ “inalienable” right to take industrial action, proposing reform legislation to prevent industrial action being overruled by the courts over technicalities.
On the other hand, he showed major weaknesses, the most glaring being his response to questions over the war in Iraq. He stood by the decision to invade Iraq; recalling a meeting with an Iraqi Kurdish leader in the lead up to the war, who had supported the war, and suggested that to have not gone ahead with military action “would have resulted in a bloody civil war, with many more lives lost and possibly even further fragmentation of the middle east.” All of which begs the question, what does he imagine is happening now? All in all, he gave a reasonably impressive response to a wide range of questions, but lacks the political muscle, or inclination, to really renew the party and provide strong leadership.
Finally, David Miliband gave his webchat, on the 21st June, but had to cut it short to see a government statement on the European Council. He started off by, rather disingenuously, responding to a question on Iraq by stating that he would not have supported the invasion of Iraq, if he had known there were no WMD “not least because there would have been no UN resolutions.” This highlights the extent to which he is implicated with New Labour’s foreign policy blunders, particularly after the recent revelations over British complicity with the torture of terrorist suspects. On a more positive note, he backed “multilateral disarmament – down to zero,” although it’s unclear how this squares with the proposed trident replacement. He also offered to pay for 1000 community organizers to be trained, using money from his campaign fund. Overall he seemed most assured- if misguided- when covering foreign policy, his old stomping ground. He is, of the candidates, the most bound up with the New Labour establishment, and was a key member of Tony Blair’s camp within the party. He is currently the frontrunner, with 81 MP, 6 MEP, 126 CLP and 2 Trade Union nominations, and the bookie’s favourite.
Diane Abbott did not participate in a webchat.
Overall, I think that Ed Balls gave the strongest responses and has had a good overall campaign. Unfortunately, his unpopularity means that he is unlikely to win, and the popular press would, likely, make him unelectable, if he did become leader. It is interesting how the support seemed to converge on the Milibands, as I’ve said before the most archetypical politicians, fairly early on. Of the two I still prefer Ed, even though he gave the weakest webchat, he has had a strong campaign proposing some impressively radical policies. Labour’s last manifesto, which was his baby, was well thought out, although, sadly, that couldn’t overcome the fact that prevailing attitude had turned against Labour.
It’s still all to play for in the Labour Leadership contest, which doesn’t conclude until September.
Anyone wanting to follow the progress of nominations can do so at Labour List.