Labour’s Family Affair
The Scotsman, June 14th 2010
The five Labour candidates gathered yesterday in Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall before a packed audience of 400 party members. This proved to be a lively hustings with good humour, animated discussion and no rancour.
If it had any faults it lacked any real disagreements, provided little detail, and pandered to what they thought a Scottish audience would want.
Iain Gray opened the meeting declaring before anything had happened ‘that the hustings showed Labour was on the way back’. Then came the official story of Scottish Labour: the party had learnt the lessons of defeat in 2007. When he took over, the party had just lost Glasgow East and was 16% behind the SNP in the polls. ‘We fought back and we won’ declared Gray, seeing May’s election result as ‘one million Scots saying yes to Labour’.
The debate was chaired by Johann Lamont and showed some life, reflection and the first tentative steps in what may be a long road to recovery. All the contenders talked of the lessons of defeat, with David Miliband mentioning that the party ‘lost four and a half million votes and 160 MPs since 1997’.
The lessons of the New Labour era were examined with Ed Miliband observing that ‘we became technocrats and managers’ and Diane Abbott that ‘we forgot our base and tried to hold New Labour’. Andy Burnham spoke of the stranglehold of ‘the London-centreness of our politics’.
This was spectacularly short of any specifics or wider understanding of the cumulative failure of New Labour and what politics have become. There was little real understanding of the deficit and how to reduce it, no real analysis of what to do about banking and Labour’s culpability in the financial crisis, or the party’s uncritical embracing of the freewheeling nature of turbo-capitalism.
All five waxed at great length about defending the public sector against ‘Tory cuts’: a return to an age-old Labour ‘Back to the Future’ theme. It took David Miliband to state that ‘we need a strong private sector given 75% of people work there’.
On welfare, and what a questioner called ‘the inherited poverty’ of several generations, none of the five showed any clue what to do. David Miliband slammed against poverty declaring ‘that is why we are socialists’ to loud applause, before announcing ‘Iain Duncan Smith hasn’t got the answers’ without saying why he was wrong or offering anything positive.
Diane Abbott talked of ‘the lack of role models’ in her constituency, Ed Miliband of the mistake of ‘Frank Field thinking of restricting child poverty and ending Breakfast Clubs’, and Andy Burnham said ‘it is about one word: hope’.
When we got onto foreign policy via the Middle East David Miliband claimed ‘the worst thing that happened to Tony Blair was George Bush’. Ed Miliband responded with what was the best soundbite of the day stating ‘We could have got off the train George Bush was driving at any time and we didn’t’.
The success of Scottish Labour was mentioned by all five, as was Calman, with only Abbott going further stating ‘we need to look at the business and voluntary leaders who have called for’ what she called ‘fund-raising powers for the Parliament’.
Scotland was characterised by two themes. The first was all the candidates agreeing that Iain Gray should be Scottish leader, a member of the NEC and Shadow Cabinet. The second, which ran across the entire debate, was the constant fawning to the memories of Donald Dewar. David Miliband even shaped his final contribution by talking about ‘the lessons from Donald Dewar’s legacy’.
They talked about the lessons of the 1980s and 1990s and whether New Labour had over-reached in its control and ‘iron discipline’. Ed Balls talked of ‘reviving the party’ as did Abbott, for David Miliband to comment ‘we have to save ourselves from structures which demoralised and nearly destroyed us in the 1980s’. This was taken by the other candidates as a New Labour-endorsing statement.
There was no clear winner in the debate, but Diane Abbott did not put over a serious, coherent critique of New Labour, but did add spark to the debate. Most disappointing were Ed Balls and Andy Burnham, neither of whom have found a distinct voice.
This brings the debate down to a family affair: David and Ed. On this showing it could be a very close contest with David more the loyalist and Ed the more critical and open-minded. If this remains the case, whatever the result, Ed Miliband looks like the coming man.