Sunday, July 18, 2010

Hustings Report

I went to today's hustings event in Birmingham genuinely undecided as to how my two votes will be allocated, beyond a reasonable certainty that it will be to a Miliband.

Hang on a sec, I hear you cry, TWO votes?

OK, a quick lesson in how the Labour Party votes for leaders. We use an electoral college system to balance out three groups in the party. One third of the votes in the college belong to the parliamentary party in Westminster and Europe, one third belongs to the membership and the remainder is for union members. Each group votes on a one member, one vote basis and the votes for each candidate are added up to create a percentage within each group. Then the AV kicks in and the bottom candidates are removed round by round, with second preferences being assigned until one candidate achieves 50% of the vote. As an ordinary member and a union member, I therefore get two votes. You will also note that not all votes are equal - some are worth more than others.

So, having explained that, let's move on to the meat of the morning.

All five certainly had their strengths and there was considerable agreement on the economic way forward for the Midlands - all spoke of retaining Advantage West Midlands (although only Ed Balls could name the RDA) and supporting the manufacturing sector (Diane mentioned supporting the public sector, which is a major employer in the region). While there was agreement over voting reform, there are differences over how to achieve it. David wants a general referendum on Commons and Lords reform, Ed Balls is concerned about having the referendum on the same day as the local elections and also about the proposed boundary changes, Ed Miliband wants the locals to be a referendum on the government, not reform and Andy Burnham knows that this is important, but wants it kept in perspective - people won't thank us for fiddling with the system while the economy burns.

While four of them have risen through the modern route of Oxbridge, special advisor and thence to a safe seat and the Cabinet, Andy Burnham is selling himself as somebody outside the Westminster system, despite having spent his career inside that system. He isn't without sound ideas though and I was delighted to hear him mention the need for more council housing, as our failure to tackle the desperate need for genuinely affordable housing was the biggest domestic error of the last government. He was also willing to stand up for comprehensive schools and has also benefitted from the agenda set by the Tory proposals on the NHS, so has been at the front of our defence of the system. Locally, he has some support, but that seems to be focussed on our North Staffordshire MPs, even though the constituency parties up there aren't necessarily following suit. Burnham does trade rather too much on his credentials as a northerner and his campaign is noticeably run from Manchester, not London. Sadly, I think he is doomed to the fourth or fifth spot in the vote, but he has done himself no harm by standing, as I've been impressed by much that he has to say - not least his promises to reform how the party works and mentioning that the deficit should be repaid by utilising a higher proportion of tax-raising measures.

Diane Abbott is the traditional leftist candidate, also trading on her outsider status and making a virtue of the fact that she has never held ministerial office. She is unashamedly appealing to the left, promising to scrap Trident and making great play of her record of voting against illegal wars - something that she will repeat slightly more often than Andy Burnham tells you he's from the North. I thought she spoke well with regard to tackling the far right, stressing that the rise of the far right does reflect a genuine dissatisfaction over jobs and housing. On that, Ed Miliband was also sound, noting that the right flourishes where Labour withdraws, something that chimes closely with my own experience. While Diane's populist, I think that her lack of top-level experience counts against her and her independence of mind would make it hard to enforce party discipline over tight issues.

Ed Balls was very strong, as you would expect, on the economy, rightly drawing parallels with the 1930s and Ramsay Macdonald's deficit cuts. He's had an even better couple of weeks than Burnham, exploiting the ongoing car crash that has been Michael Gove's cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future and playing to his strengths. I think he fell down on dealing with the far right, where he seems to believe that we need to contrast our values with those of the fascists - I don't think that this is enough, we actually need to clean up the environment that sustains them by tackling issues. He is, however, very impressive and is certainly a combative opposition politician and we certainly need that sort of streetfighting skill for the years ahead. He's not been badly received by the membership and has grown in stature over the weeks of the campaign. I don't see him winning, but should be a strong player. It will be interesting to see where the unions formally place their support and it is worth noting that he does have a significant level of support amongst Midlands MPs - Ian Austin, Jim Cunningham, Khalid Mahmood, Steve McCabe, Geoffrey Robinson, John Spellar, Tom Watson and David Wright are all supporters. I do think that he let himself down by using his closing speech to launch an attack on Frank Field - he wasted a chance to tell us more about himself, but used it to batter a Labour MP who can't answer back at the moment (however wrong Field may have been).

Then we come to the two front runners in the Milibands. I've been increasingly impressed by David over the past few weeks, but still need to be convinced that he can connect with the wider public outside the Westminster political village. He's certainly a highly competent and thoughtful man and he grasps that we don't just need to appeal to our traditional core vote, but must also attract those lapsed Labour voters in the south east and the Midlands - middle England. He's found it tougher over the past couple of weeks - the foreign affairs portfolio hasn't been quite so front and centre as the domestic ones - although he did stress that the Building Schools for the Future programme started on his watch. While all the candidates backed the idea of a graduate tax - Diane mentioned that she'd voted against the tuition fees - David was the one who wanted to see fairer admissions as well. It was Ed Miliband who raised the spectre of fees discouraging students from poorer households. Both supported Trident, but Ed was open to the possibility of a full review of the nuclear capability on the basis of need and cost. I also felt that Ed's closing speech was stronger and more passionate than David's and I think that's what we need for the next five years. Neither is quite the finished article yet, but either would make a good choice. Ed seems to attract a younger, more enthusiastic generation, but David offers instant competence and ability. I suspect David will get the most first preference votes, but I would be entirely unsurprised if Ed didn't win on second preferences.

I said when interviewed that I believed that the activists know what we're fighting against, we need to know what we're fighting for. We need a narrative, a vision that will carry us over the next five years. One of these candidates needs to come forward with some coherence and demonstrate that they can sell their ideas, because if the party won't buy it, then the rest of the electorate certainly won't. They all offer something, but we only get to choose one of them. I'm still not sure who gets my first preference and I know I'm not alone in that. Both have significant support across the Midlands and are collecting supporting nominations by the handful.

The good news here is that we don't have a huge ideological battle going on. There will be no long-drawn out fight for the soul of the party as there was in the 80s, with the unrealistic and outdated demands of the left preventing us from returning to power. We have an activist base that is switching back on to opposition very quickly and we're already making significant gains in local by-elections and watching the Liberal Democrat poll share dwindle as ours holds and increases over the general election. We're in a far better place than we were in the early 80s or the Tories were between 1997 and 2005 and we need the right leader to take us forward.

This isn't just about choosing a leader - this is about choosing the one who will be our next Prime Minister. We've got to get this right.

1 comment:

snowflake5 said...

Really interesting summary, thanks.

I haven't had time to follow the ins and outs of the leadership closely, as too busy. I did however see David Miliband on "This Week", and I don't think sofa interviews are his forte. Every sentence of his had about five sub-clauses, and he sounded pompous. He ain't no Blair.

What worries me is that in British politics, most of it is sofa interviews, we have so few set speeches. I think Miliband D is too intellectual to be Labour leader.

I'm thinking of giving Andy Burnham either my first or second preference (it's between him and Ed Balls for those two places)- he's been really growing on me, and he's able to talk naturally. Why not roll the dice and see what happens?