Sunday, May 20, 2007
Can I count on your support?
To Coventry and the sundappled lawns of Warwick University, to hear the cheery voices of the contenders begging for our support. As promised, here's the (largely unedited) highlights. If you don't want to know the result, look away now.
First up was a question and answer session - a mix of questions selected from the audience, texts and emails.
This kicked off with a question over nuclear power. All of the candidates said that it should form part of a mix of supply options and was vital to ensure security of supply and most of them also mentioned the need for microgeneration to be built into new developments. Peter Hain was able to mention the changes he'd made in Northern Ireland - changing building regulations and requiring free microgeneration plants for low-cost housing. He also backed the development of the Severn barrage. Harriet Harman later said that she wasn't sure whether she'd rather have a nuclear power plant or the media camped on her doorstep.
Next up was student finance. Hilary Benn said that a review of the current system was due in 2009 and that the key test for him was whether it would help his poor constituents to get to university. Peter Hain didn't duck the question and pointed out that for every £2 a student pays towards their education, the taxpayer supplements it with £14. He was supportive of student contributions and preferred to see investment at the lower end of the education system. Alan Johnson said that free university education didn't help social exclusion and had become nothing more than a middle class perk - he was a defender of the current system. He was supported in this by Harriet Harman and Hazel Blears, who wanted to see more go to university. Jon Cruddas was the only one to differ from the current policy, saying that he had voted against student fees for personal reasons - he had benefitted from it, like the rest of his family. He also said that he considered that the expansion in higher education was based upon a false premise of a massive increase in demand for graduates.
Then, on to how to attack the Tories. Peter Hain wants to expose the shallowness of the Cameron project, but also wants to get under the radar and campaign hard on the doorstep - particularly by installing candidates early at all levels. Alan Johnson also highlighted the superficiality of the Tory revival - pointing out that Patrick Mercer is more representative of the Tory benches than Cameron, who is only being supported because he might win. Hazel Blears chipped in with a call for us to up our game and stop giving Cameron an easy ride - we need to reclaim the family-friendly policies for ourselves. She was critical of the 'poisonous and pernicious' media, which is the worst she has known it and called for a campaign to highlight politics as an honourable and reputable trade and one important to democracy and our way of life. Harriet Harman said that we had got out of the habit of attack and should counter attempts by Tory councils to claim the credit for Labour investment. Cruddas supported the public service ethic and claimed that Gordon Brown has changed the terms of the debate so that he was optimistic for our chances. Hilary Benn - who sounds disturbingly like his father - also had a go at the media, claiming that they hold up a distorting mirror to our society and that party politics and Labour politics in particular are the only hopes of changing the world.
Onwards, to a question about an ageing population and support for carers. Alan Johnson highlighted Labour's steps to improve the rights for carers and to recognise that they take pressure from the state, while Hazel Blears said that child carers needed more support. Harriet Harman performed well, promising a family-focus at the heart of government and to raise these issues up the agenda. John Cruddas was weak here, mentioning a couple of technical issues about adjusting the claims process and the way that payments taper. Hilary Benn wasn't much more exciting, but Peter Hain did well, reminding us that issues like this were the reasons why we're socialists (the only time the 'S' word was mentioned today). He used it to highlight the difference between us and the Tories - we care and they want a society built on individual greed and selfishness.
Anti-social behaviour was next on the menu, with Hazel kicking off and highlighting her role as a Home Office minister and architect of the 'respect' programme. She criticised those local authorities that don't use the full range of powers used and said that each had been given additional funding for youth services to the tune of £250,000 per authority. Harriet Harman backed the new laws, but said that it we also needed to tackle the underlying causes (tough on the causes of crime, anyone?). She backed putting Surestart into the mainstream and promised a major national strategy for youth facilities in every neighbourhood - another strong round for her. John Cruddas said that we had the balance about right between legislation and tackling the causes. Hilary Benn claimed to have been radicalised on this issue by the problems raised in constituency surgeries. Peter Hain blamed a lack of respect for the problems. He agreed that we need to help families in deprived areas and tackle dysfunctionality, but we have to recognise that life can be made hell for others by a nuisance neighbour. He made the point that we need to be on the side of those affected, but also on the side of the majority of young people who are decent members of society - something echoed by Gordon Brown in his later appearance. Alan Johnson wanted to tackle this through education, by raising the school leaving age to ensure that no child is left off the skills radar and to ensure that we provide more opportunities.
The next question related to how efficiently the increase in NHS funding is being used. Harriet Harman wanted us to listen to the staff - an initiative followed by most of her colleagues on the platform. She was amazed that while people's personal experience of the NHS is improving, the Tories are leading us in the polls on this issue. Peter Hain equally couldn't understand how we don't get credit for the decade of change and said that we need to communicate the message much better - communicate and celebrate our achievements. Alan Johnson said that old method of balancing the books was by using waiting lists and that reform has been essential, but that we need to develop a real social partnership with NHS employees - it is appalling that they feel badly treated by Labour. John Cruddas wanted to pause and take stock of private involvement in the NHS - their operations cost 11% more than public sector ones and he promised a moratorium on further private sector activity. Here, Hazel Blears took issue - she has no problems with using private sector or voluntary capacity to get patients treated, the outcome is what matters.
Finally, they were each asked to nominate one issue that Labour should address to energise our electorate. John Cruddas went for insecurity at work, linking it to chronic abuses by landlords and criminal gangs in their mistreatment of migrant workers. Hilary Benn hit the nail on the head and picked on affordable housing - we need to provide more homes. Peter Hain wants inequality front and centre as we address housing for young people, ensure that legislation is enforced to end the two-tier labour market - identifying that as a potentially toxic issue for community relations (something that John Cruddas also picked up on). Alan Johnson, perhaps mindful of his background, wanted social mobility as a key issue. He says that it is now harder to escape the shackles of a deprived upbringing in the UK than in other similar countries. He also picked on housing (the single issue part of the question having fallen by the wayside) and suggested that councils should be allowed to establish their own ALMOs to build new properties. At this point, La Toynbee (who was chairing the whole thing) intervened to ask how you close the wealth gap without doing anything about those at the top of the heap. Johnson said that you can by concentrating on tax credit and the use of benefits to redistribute - the poorest 20% in the UK have seen a greater percentage increase in their income than the top 20%. Peter Hain jumped in to say that it was not acceptable for a small group in the City to earn billions in bonuses and that there was a need for more corporate responsibility. Hazel Blears had a decent response to the main question, saying that it was a basket of things required to appeal to ordinary decent families - jobs, education and healthcare - and that we must not cede this ground to the Tories. Harriet Harman closed this by adding that we needed to clean up our act - no spin, no briefings, no grace and favour mansions - we're Labour, not Tories.
Each candidate then had the chance to address the meeting with some closing remarks.
Harriet Harman went first and she raised the subject of Iraq (curiously unmentioned thus far), saying that it needed to be addressed as an issue. We need new policies to take the fight to the Tories and that this was a task for the whole of the party, but we also needed to recall our lapsed members to come back and help shape the future.
Fabulous was the word of the day for Hazel, who claimed that this was a fabulous opportunity for unity and that we should celebrate our record and our achievements. She went on to say that we have transformed communities and that the role of a Deputy Leader is to be a full-time motivator to ensure that we continue to be united and fabulous.
Interestingly, Alan Johnson raised the removal of Clause IV as an example of the Labour Party removing a fundamental dishonesty at the heart of the party, while the Tories' new policy on grammar schools was building one in to the heart of theirs.
Peter Hain traced his principles back to things learned in South Africa and in the cradle of apartheid, which led him to a belief in the need to change the world. For him, politics is not a career, but a passion and he wants more young people to see a natural path from single-issue campaigning to activity within the Labour Party. He wants a progressive internationalist foreign policy and made a virtue of his independence from any faction within the party.
Hilary Benn also said that he saw no place for factionalism - politics is a way to achieve things and that he was unapologetic about his values and wanting a society where we agree to put something back in for what we take out. He also wants to put justice at the heart of foreign policy and spoke of redistributing power and opportunity as well as wealth.
John Cruddas wound up by saying that he wanted all his colleagues to run departments so that they could deliver their agendas, but that he felt that he should be deputy leader without a department. The deputy leader should be the voice of the party and lead the rebuilding of the coalition that brought us to power.
Now, I went into that debate as an avowed supporter of Cruddas. He's said an awful lot of things that I would support - not least that he put the reform and reconstruction of the party at the centre of his campaign. I have to say that I left feeling rather let down by him and I'm disappointed by that. He missed a trick on the single key issue for the election campaign. While what he raised regarding employment is important, it isn't going to allow us to reconnect to our voters. It matters to the unions, but I don't think that it is a killer issue for the average voter across the country. For me, the big issue will be as it was in 1945 - housing. If we can provide solutions to the massive problems there, then we can enthuse voters of all ages with the promises of homes fit for our more modern heroes.
Hazel Blears had some good moments and spoke well, taking the audience with her on occasion and probably drawing the most decent round of applause. However, her replies lacked substance. She can talk the talk and spin the web, but I didn't feel that there was much depth to her.
Alan Johnson was OK and not a lot more than that. Some good thinking, but nothing to write home about. Hilary Benn comes over as a thoroughly decent man, but not right for the top job. Harriet Harman went up in my estimation quite significantly. She's got clear strengths on family policies and could be a real asset to Gordon in taking on the Tories in the southern seats.
The one who impressed me most was Peter Hain. He looks the part and he was the only candidate to use the lectern supplied at the side of the stage for his summing up, a neat trick that immediately set him apart from the rest of the group. With his response to the first question, he highlighted his experience in Northern Ireland and some concrete achievements in the environmental field. He didn't overplay his hand on the broader NI political issues and gave a statesmanlike performance overall.
I spent a little time picking up the thoughts of others and it seems to me that the members' vote is pretty wide open. Even after attending that hustings meeting, many people are undecided, so the next few weeks will be crucial amongst all the candidates as they seek to get their cases across to use mere voting mortals. I think I picked up a slight leaning towards Hain amongst members, but by no means enough to call the election for him and Cruddas is also doing well. There's still a lot to play for.
What is true is that despite the involvement of a Benn in a leadership campaign, there's not the rancour and division in the air that there was in the early 1980s, for example. There aren't huge policy divides between any of the candidates and I would not feel badly served if any of them (probably apart from Hazel) won the job.