It might be a building site, but already New Street Station looks better than the soulless vault it previously was. Something else was also better than preceding iterations. When I trekked down to Birmingham yesterday for the Labour leadership and deputy leadership hustings, my hopes were not high. After all, members and supporters were invited to submit their questions before proceedings began. A manifestation of control-freakery? Actually, no. The range of questions were broad, and so the audience got a much better discussion than I was hoping for. Speaking of the people in the hall, around a thousand turned up to Brum’s New Bingley Hall – much more than previous regional events I’ve attended these last five years. Then again, when you’ve put on 50,000 members since the general election how could it be otherwise?
Sky’s Sophy Ridge moderated proceedings. There was an hour for leader candidates followed by another hour for the would-be deputies (the latter will be covered in a separate post). Each candidate was expected to stick to a strict time limit and at the end of questions gave a concluding stump speech. The questions and answers were …
How would you tackle Middle Eastern terrorism?
Liz Kendall: What is happening is a struggle that is generational. A Labour government would look at attacking the sources of IS funding, help develop a political strategy for the region, look at ways of countering extremism at home, and engage more closely with the EU as a united foreign policy on this issue gives our approach added strength.
Yvette Cooper: This is a huge challenge. At home we should work more effectively at rooting out homegrown Islamist radicalism by listening to those already working in Muslim communities fighting extremist influence and working to support them. We should also overhaul Prevent.
Jeremy Corbyn: What had happened on the beaches of Tunis was appalling and all solidarity with the victims. We need to take the longer view about where we are. We need to ask who is funding IS and who is arming them? We also need to support all democratic forces in the region, work to sort out a just Palestinian settlement, and fight against Islamophobia at home.
Andy Burnham: We need to redouble our international efforts. We also have to make sure our troops are properly resourced, and we must take the Prime Minister to task when he says that many Muslims quietly condone terrorism.
Why was Jeremy the only candidate protesting against austerity at last week’s anti-austerity march?
YC: Labour need to stop running away from its record in government, we need to stand up and tell the truth – not apologise for it. We have to make it clear we are for reducing the deficit and debt, but in a fairer way.
JC: Enjoyed the demo, but if we’re going to win and connect with wider layers of voters we have to inspire them with a different economic strategy. In the mean time, things are going to get worse for people on low pay, people in insecure working, and people who need social security to make ends meet.
AB: Everything I’m saying and doing is to make sure we win in 2020. We need economic credibility, but at the same time we did fix the roof while the sun is shining – the public sector was rebuilt, but the truth of the matter is we were in a weak position as we went into the crisis, we should have run a lower deficit.
LK: No one wants to see cuts and the devastating impacts they have. This is why we should champion the living wage, we need to move more money into house building, which can help turbocharge the economy. And we need to regain our economic credibility while setting out our key differences with the government.
Was it Labour’s policies or Labour’s past record that lost us the election?
JC: The bankers are absolutely to blame for the economic crisis. We have accepted arbitrary time limits on when we should run a budget surplus by, and that is leading us to be ineffective when it comes to opposing £12bn in benefits cuts and reduction in infrastructural spending. We need to reject this message.
AB: It was both of these things. Our failure to defend our record was devastating – historically Labour has ran more surpluses than the Tories. We need to be honest about our achievements, and ensure we set out a positive, credible plan.
LK: We didn’t spell out why we put money into the banks, but the question we need to ask (and have an answer for) is how we’re going to change the economy? We also need to define the debate on Europe.
YC: People wanted a fair deal but felt that Labour couldn’t be trusted. We need to be more pro-business and set out how we would support the economy and help create the hi-tech jobs of the future.
What will your immigration policy be?
AB: Labour were out of touch on immigration. We felt uncomfortable talking about it on the doorstep, so we should have a policy position we can be proud of. Therefore Labour should champion the freedom of movement, but not the freedom to claim. We should not allow cheap labour to be imported to undercut wages, and more resources should be allocated to those places where migrant workers settle.
LK: It was a tough issue on the doorstep, so we need firm rules on claiming [benefits]. We need more respect for host cultures and a points system for non-EU immigration, but at the same time have zero tolerance of discrimination.
JC: We should defend free movement and migrants. Britain should also be taken its share of Mediterranean refugees, and multiculturalism is something to be proud of.
Tony Blair won three elections. What have you learned from him?
LK: I’ve learned that we win when the party is modern, relevant, looking outwards, and have a broad offer. We must engage with the world as it is.
YC: That we can combine a stronger economy, a fairer society, and optimism for the future. But we can’t win by rerunning 1997 – we face multiple challenges now that we didn’t then.
JC: I have some differences with Tony Blair … but under each of his victories, our vote went down. Why? We didn’t inspire people to come out and vote, and they didn’t think we remained true to our values.
AB: Tony has the pulse of where people were and could speak for everyone, though we did get too close to business and the media. But we need to build on what Ed Miliband did too – he made inequality an important issue again. Labour is best when it speaks for everyone and can help them get on.
Why were Labour so heavily defeated in Scotland, and how can we win there again?
YC: Our party had become hollowed out, and we were not strong enough to face the rising tide of nationalism. The way we can come back is if we make principled arguments.
JC: Party membership in Scotland is very small, but there is plenty of things we can challenge the SNP on. They have a programme that is overseeing privatisation, and they too have a programme of austerity. We also made a huge error being involved with Better Together.
AB: The party has never really been comfortable with devolution, but ultimately the problems in Scotland are felt elsewhere too. What was lacking is that emotional connection, and that’s what we’ve got to re-establish, and we do that by fighting now.
LK: What happened in Scotland occurred over a long period. Ultimately, we came unstuck because we didn’t make a positive case for the union. We beat the SNP by organising from the grassroots and challenging them, such as why are fewer young people going into FE and HE under their watch? And we have to combat the divisiveness of nationalism.
How would you appeal to non-voters?
JC: This is worrying because large numbers of non-voters were young people. To counter this, we have to make ourselves into a social movement again. We need a much larger party with more democracy so members feel like they’re part of something. And even then that will only be a beginning.
AB: We’ve got to listen to what people are telling us, no matter how unpalatable that might be. But more than that we need to get beyond retail politics, of offering a small pledge here, a small pledge there. We should try defining political debates with big policies like the National Care Service. Then we can show how relevant our ideas are.
LK: The big problem is the centralised way Westminster works. We also have to face up to the fact that our millions of conversations were really voter ID, and that needs to change.
YC: We need to knock on every door because non-voters don’t feel as though anyone speaks up for them. Westminster has to be shaken up, politics should go where the people are.
What are your views on academies?
AB: I vehemently oppose what the Tories are doing, and I opposed it when we did it too. We need a comprehensive system and a role for the local authority; the market is not the answer. This is intrinsic to Labour values.
LK: Andy backed the Everton Free School, so we need to be consistent about our approach locally and nationally. There is no accountability in the academy system, so that should be addressed. Ultimately though our job is to back good schools regardless and get away from an obsession with structures.
YC: Parents want what’s best, but the problem is the Tories are centralising power. There has to be local accountability. Furthermore free schools are a misallocation of resources. The school system has to get away from academic snobbery and more stress placed on vocationalism.
JC: We should be defending local democratic accountability and bring back local education authorities. Comprehensive schools also allow for a mix of people and help build string communities.
In there summing ups, Liz said we had to champion great businesses and sound public spending, while dispersing powers and making sure there is accountability from top to bottom. We cannot afford to stick in our comfort zone. Yvette spoke about a woman – someone in arrears because of the bedroom tax – who she convinced to vote Labour, but because we didn’t win she felt that woman had been let down. We need a leader who is strong across all areas and can take the fight to the PM, who stands for Labour, not Tory values, and can deliver jobs of the future and a childcare revolution. In the best line of the afternoon, she concluded by noting that Dave and the Tories have a woman problem, so let’s give them a bigger one. Jeremy said we need to face the crisis austerity has created and the arguments justifying it have to be faced down. Instead we should be ensuring everyone is housed, everyone has the chance of a job, that destitution is eradicated and, for good measure, Trident should be done away with. Lastly, Andy said he wants to win for Labour, but we have to face up to the truth that we’ve lost that emotional connection. We can’t carry on, we need to get out of Westminster more, ensure the front bench has the accents and make up of the rest of the country, trust our councillors more and develop a vision for the 21st century. The aim should be not to give the Tories a problem, but to beat them.
Obviously a great deal is lost summarising contributions in this way, not least the atmosphere. For instance, Liz got heckled a lot during her education comments, while the biggest rounds of applause were reserved for Jeremy – it’s as if a whole generation of activists are glad to hear those arguments from the platform again. And in truth, he did make some contributions that might be stolen by whoever ends up the leader. Performance-wise, I thought Liz didn’t do as well as she might, and I’m not saying that because I’m opposed, her performance was a touch deflated. It was competent but came across like a graduate fast-tracked into middle management bidding for a senior role after a year in position. I remain of the opinion that she doesn’t understand the nature of the Labour Party. Jeremy was quite measured and charming, not tub-thumping or hectoring at all. Andy was very accomplished, I do agree that we have to start “thinking big” but his arguments don’t always cohere with one another. And Yvette has visibly improved since the first few webcast hustings, you now get a sense that she wants it and has started speaking with some passion.
Who’s going to win? On the basis of these hustings it’s very difficult to say. I imagine teams Andy, Yvette, and Jez will be happy with how their candidate came across. But if you want to put on a sneaky bet, (and ignoring my awful record at predicting politics) I think Yvette is the candidate with momentum, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Liz comes in last. Yet there’s a long bloody way to go yet.
For an alternative pro-Liz take, here’s what my friend and comrade Rowan Draper has to say.