An effort on live blogging tonight. No idea how effective it will be, but here goes. I've not filled out my ballot paper(s) yet and I've decided to hold off until I see who does well on this.
First up - what's Blair's biggest failure? Hain wimps out by bumbling on about housing - valid point about a policy failure, but ignores the elephant in the room. Harman and Cruddas both get the answer right, grab the elephant and nominate Iraq. Benn suggests a failure to narrow the poverty gap and Johnson suggests children in care - answering strongly when he is challenged about the whole decade being one of failure. My brain seems to have erased what Blears blathered about. Hain comes back by saying that we should deal with major international issues by strengthening international institutions. Cruddas gets challenged over his vote in favour of war, saying that he was, with hindsight, wrong to back it and would not do so if he knew then what he knows now. Hain and Harman both admit that they believed the intelligence data as presented and took their decisions in good faith. Johnson makes similar noises.
When challenged over being dominated by Europe, Hain is proud to be a pro-Europe government - for which he gets a burst of applause. Benn supports him, pointing out that a co-operative approach to our role in Europe has delivered better results than the Tory antagonism previously. Cruddas says that we should have developed more citizen involvement. Another questioner later tries to revive the subject, but is shut down by Dimbles as the candidates don't
disagree over European policy.
On to a discussion on what they would have done differently to Prescott. Johnson would have carried out the same role as Prescott - being loyal and supportive publicly, but not being afraid to point out the mistakes in private. Harman would have pushed families further up the agenda. Hain wants to use the position to revive the party, something echoed by Cruddas. Blears wants to encourage the cabinet to get out more and see what works for our communities. Benn backs Prescott and says that the Deputy Leader needs to work to restore faith in politics. In response to a question from the audience, Benn comes back strongly over the issue of poverty - pointing out that there can be a difference of 15 years in the life expectancy of people living in different parts of London.
In response to a question citing the popularity of Jon Cruddas, Benn responds by saying that reconnection is a matter of talking about the things that matter, like inequality. Hain denies that there is an Old Labour/New Labour rift and says that the main challenge is taking on the Tories. He mentions that he's produced a policy pamphlet and, a little unconvincingly, denies that he has been cold-shouldered by Gordon for his redisovery of his left-wing principles in time for the deputy leadership election. Cruddas says that we've lost our way in not articulating the concerns of ordinary people as we did in 1997 and that many of the issues aren't about a split between the arms of the party.
Quite rightly, Johnson says that many of the policy areas that Labour has majored on over the past decade are traditional left-wing issues and it is a measure of their popularity that Cameron is trying to take the same ground. Harman thinks that people want the broad reach of a leadership team comprising her and Gordon. Dimbles puts Blears under some pressure here on the tax issue - she warns that candidates should be careful about making statements for popularity within the party without considering the effect on the wider electorate. Harman says that we won support for our policies like the minimum wage because we made sure that our policies were good for the middle-ground.
Now there's a question over the relationship with America - Harman says that we should maintain it, but we need to be prepared to tell them when they are wrong over things like Guantanamo or extraordinary rendition. Hain says that there is a resurgent Democratic party in the US and these changes will allow us to achieve more in solving major international problems. Nobody seems prepared to suggest abandoning the 'Special Relationship.'
Alan Johnson floods us with positive statistics over education and improving results. The questioner was actually talking about the problems with the MTAS computer system for allocating positions to junior doctors.
A new question about the creation of a 'Big Brother State.' Blears denies that it exists and says that there are very real threats to our security, citing popular support for CCTV schemes. Harman (former chair of NCCL/Liberty) says that the Human Rights Act offers protection against abuses of power. She says that collecting information is about making people safe, not about Big Brother. Returning to a previous theme, after prompting by Dimbleby, she is strongly critical of the Guantanamo camp and also wants a new international agreement to ensure that flights carrying prisoners are identified.
The panel are asked what piece of legislation they would most like to see repealed. Cruddas flunks it and can't offer an answer first time round. Johnson says that the 17p increase in pensions in 1997 was wrong. Blears says that are perhaps one or two pieces of legislation that haven't been implemented and the key thing is to ensure that powers are used to make communities safer. Benn has a better answer than Cruddas, saying that he can't recall being pestered by the electorate to repeal legislation. When prompted by Dimbleby over tuition fees, he responds by supporting them and paying tribute to Johnson for piloting the legislation through parliament to remove up-front fees and restore grants. Hain reckons that we're over-regulated in some areas - he cites school trips and fear of litigation. Harman takes on the question and challenges the premise, falling over a little more gracefully, but then passing the buck back to Cruddas. He's had a little time to think and raises Trident and the ban on asylum-seekers working (both of which get applause from the audience).
Johnson says that he had no encouragement from the PM to challenge for the leadership and that this contest isn't a poor substitute for an abandoned contest for the top job. Benn points out that this is simply a result of an open process.
On to a query as to what influence a deputy leader can have, now that Gordon is able to unleash his plans on the nation. Hain says that it is important to be in Cabinet to influence policy - taking on the Cruddas desire to not hold a Cabinet post. Blears reckons that Gordon will be able to release some of the levers of power. Following on from a challenge by Dimbleby that she would be a patsy for Brown, Harman says that she has worked with him for 25 years and has already influenced some of the policy ideas that Gordon has. Johnson claims that if you make a decent argument and are sure of your facts, then Brown will listen. Benn says that we have to govern by consent and that we should stand up for the things that we believe in. Cruddas says that the Deputy Leader should be prepared to offer the challenges from the party to the government.
Interesting question about recognising excellence, the panel are asked to name the biggest political success of one of their fellow candidates. Hain nominates Benn for international development, Benn cites Harman's role in pushing the child service agenda. Harman nominates Cruddas for putting housing on the agenda and Blears backs Johnson over bringing maternity pay and other benefits in while at the DTI. Johnson goes for Blears over her chairmanship of the party and Cruddas misses out backing Hain over Ireland and praises Johnson for his management of education bills through parliament.
After a short period for review, I'd say that Benn won the contest - being able to see him close up, rather than across a hall in Warwick, he seemed very calm, competent and clear-sighted about where he wants to go in the job. His resemblance to his father in voice and mannerism is rather spooky - whether that's a good thing, I'm not sure. Hain cut a sad figure to me, he looks like a man who knows he's beaten and he seems tired by the whole thing - the permatan has faded as well. Cruddas remained positive and I thought gave a solid performance, if not quite so match-winning. He had a lot of support in the room and picked up the biggest bursts of applause of the night for some of his comments - Trident in particular. Blears is still Blears and will be a loyal Blairite to the bitter end. Harman was pretty strong, combative where needed and was suggesting strongly that she is Brown's choice for deputy leader. I had a phone call from her campaign earlier in the week and the key argument put forward on her behalf was that she was a woman. My response was that I'd vote for whichever candidate I thought matched my principles and would offer the best for my party. If gender was the sole delineation between otherwise identical candidates, then I'd probably vote for the woman, but otherwise I'm not going to cast a vote solely on that basis. You can question how much Harman and Hain have jumped on the Cruddas bandwagon over rebuilding the party, but remember that they both led organisations that depended on their grassroots support. Johnson also looked very competent, bravely reminding the audience about the received wisdom amongst all the international intelligence community in 2003 that Saddam Hussein did indeed have weapons of mass destruction. That was certainly a view held by the Russians, the Germans and the French - none of whom backed the war.
We have five strong candidates for the post. And Hazel Blears. Any of them would make a competent deputy leader, so the choice isn't as easy. In particular, the second votes will count. I was asked who should be the unifying Prescott figure in a comment to an earlier post and this is an interesting question. It depends on who you think Brown will need to keep inside the tent. I suspect that Brown will have to keep an eye on the traditional awkward squad on the left and also some of those disillusioned Blairites on the right. They are probably pose a greater threat of disruption so Johnson would probably be a good counter-weight to Brown, as he has strong contacts within the Blairite wing and remains a loyalist. Cruddas has a number of unions backing him, so he would be the best direct replacement for Prescott in terms of maintaining the union contact.
It will all be decided next week and then we can get back to the real business of the day.