Summary of the Labour Party Deputy Leadership Debate
by Englishlefty, Wed May 30, 2007 at 06:25:07 AM EDT
On June 27 Tony Blair will step down as leader of the Labour Party. His successor will be Gordon Brown, as he was the only candidate to receive the necessary nominations from 44 MPs. Brown has been viewed as the heir apparent since 1994 and his victory was all but assured, so no other candidate from the mainstream of the parliamentary party elected to challenge him, although the ultra-Blairite faction toyed with the idea. His only opponents were Michael Meacher and John McDonnell, both from the left of the party. The former withdrew from contention to make it easier for the latter to get on the ballot, but there was little enthusiasm for a contest amongst MPs and few of them seem to have wanted to mark themselves out as members of the awkward squad by voting against Brown, so more than 300 out of 354 MPs nominated the Chancellor, sufficient to prevent McDonnell getting on the ballot.
Disappointing as this was to those like me who favoured a public debate on Labour's future path, there is a silver lining. In the Deputy Leadership Election, six candidates made it on to the ballot, covering more or less all of the ideological range of current MPs, from ultra-Blairites to Brownites to the soft left. Last night the candidates had a televised debate on BBC's Newsnight, hosted by Jeremy Paxman.
The video's here and discussion of the various candidates and their performances can be found in the extended entry.
First off, a brief summary of the six contenders:
The son of Tony Benn, veteran scion of the left wing of the party, he doesn't share his politics, having described himself as "a Benn, not a Bennite". He entered parliament in 1999 through a by-election for Leeds Central, a safe seat, having served as a special adviser in the government. In 2003 he was made International Development Secretary, a post which he is considered to have done well in. The consensus is that Brown would be smart to pick him for Foreign Secretary.
He had some difficulty gathering sufficient nominations amongst MPs, perhaps because he doesn't represent any one factional grouping particularly strongly, but once he got on the ballot he was made the favourite by the bookmakers. This is partly because of the Benn name and partly because he can be seen as a consensus candidate. He also has the backing of the most Constituency Labour Parties, 32. Wikipedia
Blears is the ultra-Blairite in the race. She's been an MP since 1997, representing Salford, a safe seat which is probably significantly to the left of her. She's Labour Party Chair (an appointed position) and Minister Without Portfolio at present and her campaign stresses the importance of not moving away from Blair and remaining on what she considers to be the centre ground. Her campaign has the support of a lot of the most loyal MPs, such as John Reid and Ruth Kelly, as well as the small (and defiantly unmilitant) USDAW union. 9 CLPs have endorsed her. Wikipedia
Cruddas is the wild card. A Labour MP since 2001 representing Dagenham, he was previously a No 10 aide with responsibility for links with unions. Following his election, however, he has tended to cleave towards the left of the parliamentary party. He has not always been rebellious and certainly cannot be lumped in the same camp as, for example, members of the Socialist Campaign Group, yet neither is he reliably loyal to the government line and he has not received a ministerial role.
He is campaigning specifically for the Deputy Leadership of the Party and says he will refuse to accept the post of Deputy Prime Minister or any other portfolio should he win the election, wanting to concentrate on rebuilding the party instead. In this respect he appears to be proposing that the Deputy Leader should essentially be an elected version of the Party Chairman.
Most of his nominations come from back-benchers and left-wing MPs, but he also has the endorsement of the large (and generally more active) Amicus and TGWU unions as well as 17 CLPs, so his strength in the balloting is likely to come from the extra-parliamentary constituencies (40% of the vote is given to affiliated trades unions, 30% to MPs and MEPs and the remaining 30% to rank and file Party members).
Born in South Africa, he was a leading light in the anti-apartheid campaign in Britain, as a result of which South African intelligence services attempted to have him framed for a bank robbery. Initially a Liberal, in the late 1970s he joined the Labour Party. In 1991 he was elected as MP for Neath in a by-election.
He is currently the Secretary of State for Wales and, since 2005, Northern Ireland. His campaign emphasises his experience and background. Amongst MPs, he has support both from the left of his party (Bob Marshall-Andrews) and the right (Tory defector Shaun Woodward). Only 7 CLPs endorsed him, mostly in Wales, but he is supported by the unions ASLEF and UCATT. Wikipedia
Harman has been an MP since 1982 for Peckham (Camberwell and Peckham since 1997) and throughout the years in opposition occupied a number of positions in the Shadow Cabinet. In 1997 she was made Secretary of State for Social Security, but she was sacked in 1998. In 2001 she became Solicitor General and has since moved on to become Justice Minister. Her husband is the treasurer of the Labour Party
She is considered to be close to Gordon Brown and received nominations from prominent Brownites such as Alistair Darling, Nick Brown and Ed Milliband, as well as the support of 17 CLPs. Her campaign emphasises her ability to work with Brown, her experience, the necessity of having a female deputy and a southerner to balance the ticket and her focus on issues of importance to women and families. Wikipedia
An MP for Kingston Upon Hull West and Hessle since 1997 (and therefore neighbour to fellow Hull MP and previous current Deputy Leader John Prescott), Johnson comes from a working class background and entered politics through union activity. In 1993 he became leader of the Communication Workers Union, where he was the only union leader to support the abolition of Clause IV (it's complicated, but the short version is that it was Blair marking out his differences from 'Old' Labour).
In government he has served as Minister for Higher Education, where he helped to push through legislation for top-up fees, a measure which earned the government vast amounts of ire from every potential university student a year younger than me, although he himself lacked the public profile as a junior minister to take the flak for a policy originiating from on high, and in 2005 he was placed in charge of the Department for Trade And Industry. A year later after local elections he was made Education Secretary.
His politics are generally Blairite. He emphasises his working class roots, but stresses provision of opportunity to aid the poor rather than direct government intervention. He has the support of 18 CLPs and numbers amongst his supporters the outgoing Deputy John Prescott and the Environment Secretary David Milliband, widely tipped as a future Leader of the Party. The CWU has also endorsed him. Wikipedia
The debate began with each candidate being given 90 seconds to introduce their candidacies. Benn promised to try to reduce cynicism in politics and argued that the party should have "unapologetic socialist values" but immediately praised the capacity of business to ameliorate poverty. Likewise, his call to "redistribute wealth" did not carry the same meaning his father would have placed upon it, as he immediately added "and opportunity".
Blears stressed the necessity of "staying firmly camped on the centre ground" whilst pushing policies that would not be out of place amongst the centre-right. She claimed to have a "track record on motivating the party" and urged intensive targeting of marginal seats so as to win the next election. Harman agreed with this plan, but did it in a different way, stating "we need the marginals to deliver for our heartland". She quoted polling suggesting she appealed more to women and swing voters than the other candidates.
Johnson appeared to want to inherit the mantle of Prescott more or less unchanged. He argued that in 1997 Labour seized the centre and wrenched it left, arguing (somewhat disingenously) that things such as the imposition of the minimum wage were viewed as left-wing issues. Otherwise his speech was notable only for his wish to be "Robin to Gordon's Batman", capturing that all important segment of Labour party members who like comics but have never heard of Fredric Wertham. Me, I was too busy being horrified by the concept to pay much attention to Hain's speech, but I didn't miss much. He mostly reiterated his background and urged a "radical new vision" to tackle climate change and narrow the gap between rich and poor, but without providing specifics.
Cruddas made a deliberate appeal to the left of the party, which has felt itself marginalised more than ever in the past decade. He pointed out that the Labour Party has 200,000 fewer members than it did a decade ago (whereas Tony Blair claimed in opposition that he planned to create a million-member party - in Britain you don't register as a member of a party, you have to join it by paying a membership fee) and said he would devote himself to reversing this trend. He was the only candidate to mention Iraq in this stump speech, suggesting that it was necessary to "internationalise the situation and prepare for withdrawal". He also challenged current orthodoxy by suggesting that it was necessary to "reconsider" the march towards privatisation. Whilst not as strong a criticism of PFI and the like as McDonnell provided, this was certainly a dog-whistle to the left and people who read Private Eye carefully.
Next questioning moved on to Iraq. Each candidate voted for the war, but Harman and Cruddas said they regretted it. The former mentioned it had been a "mistake, made in good faith" but the emphasis was on the former, whilst the latter suggested that the party should apologise for its actions to repair the damage done to its relationship with the British people.
Blears insisted that had it been known that there were no WMDs no vote would have been taken in parliament, but would not apologise. Hain remarked that "I do not think I can wriggle out of my responsibility" but denied it was worth dwelling on the past, whereas Benn denied regret, saying he was glad Saddam was gone, despite the "really difficult" situation. He stressed the responsibility to defend Iraqi democracy.
Johnson's answer was probably worst. He insisted that those who voted in Iraqi elections opposed the insurgency, painting them as a foreign force. In all his answer, only his reference to Saddam ignoring UN resolutions would have seemed out of place coming from Dick Cheney's mouth.
With regard to the relationship with Bush, Hain said that "we have to work with whoever's in the White House, and it's been difficult", before comparing Dubya unfavourably to Bill Clinton. He suggested there was a need for "partnership" but that Britain needed to come from "within the European union". Given that an informal poll in 2004 suggested that Kerry would have won the votes of almost every Labour and Liberal MP and of most of the Tories, such an attitude was fairly common.
Blears and Benn both suggested a stronger UN was needed, with Benn seeming providing a defence for unilateral intervention in certain circumstances with the question, "When is the world going to acquire the means to protect people whose lives are being taken from them, whose human rights are being trampled on because of what their own governments and people in their countries do?" His command of his ministry and his nuanced view was shown by his picking as examples the Congo and Darfur rather than Iran.
Next the candidates were asked how Brown would differ from Blair. Most of the responses were essentially job applications for a major portfolio in government, but there was a contretemps pitting Blears against Hain and Harman with regard to a recent leak of proposed new powers for police, which had not been shared with the Cabinet, Parliament or senior police officers. Harman criticised the culture of spin and suggested there was a need for increased "respect for Parliament", whilst Hain argued that leaking "stops a serious debate" on these issues and that the measure would likely alienate minority communities, drawing a parallel with recent history in Northern Ireland. Blears, on the other hand, argued that "the public understands that there is a serious threat from terrorism" and "the balance between security and liberty is a difficult one to get right". Regrettably, the number of candidates denied Paxman the chance to interrogate here on this, as her argument was just waiting to be ripped to shreds.
Next there were a series of three questions demanding a yes or no answer. Whilst the format is horribly over-simplistic, I think the candidates generally responded badly by answering then trying to explain their reasoning, as it made them look as if they could not give a straight answer. Granted, there was a reason for answering in that manner, but it did not come across well.
Anyway, Cruddas was the only one to definitely oppose Trident re-authorisation, a very expensive measure to maintain our (fairly useless) submarine nuclear deterrent. Harman refused to give a yes or no answer, coming across well by refusing to accept the dichotomy, but since she recently voted to continue down the path towards re-authorisation her wavering may not come across well as a sign of principle. All the candidates favoured nuclear power, although most emphasises that renewables were more important in the long term, Harman and Cruddas mentioned concerns about waste and Cruddas said he was "not totally convinced" because of the potential cost. Cruddas favoured ending charitable status for independent schools, as did Harman in most cases. The others did not.
Next the conversation moved on to discuss inequality. Harman pushed for the gap between rich and poor to be closed, whilst Cruddas suggested that Brown's plans to eliminate child poverty by 2020 and to spend as much on a state school pupil as is spent on a private school pupil necessitated tax increases. Johnson castigated this as looking like "the politics of envy" then waffled about providing opportunity. Harman's counter that it was "the politics of equality, not the politics of envy" ranks as one of the better lines of the night.
Blears continued to be singularly awful by characterising this as "punitive taxation", offering nothing more than that she wanted "people to share some of the same experiences". And I want there to be three supermodels in my bed when I come home tonight, but wishes along don't make it so...
Benn at least understands the issue, as he said in his constituency that if one went a mile "people could be living on a different planet" in terms of income. Nevertheless, he suggested equality and reducing child poverty were the main targets to pursue, prompting Cruddas to question where the money for that would come from, saying "that's not punitive, that's an issue of basic fairness."
Hain failed to stake out a clear position as probably lost this part of the debate, suggesting tax increases would lead to a loss in revenue (somebody's been taking the CBI seriously, which is never a good idea) and proposed nothing more than that we need a "giving culture". Call me a cynic, but when there's £8.8bn in city bonuses being given out a year, I think we might be better off taking it instead.
In terms of funding for political parties, none of the candidates seemed to favour a cap on donations, although Cruddas suggested that the party voluntarily stop accepting donations from millionaires. Most (all?) proposed a spending cap, however, with Benn adding that this should apply not just at election times, but in off years. Hain correctly noted that suggested reforms from the Conservatives were merely designed to present contributions reaching Labour through members of affiliated trades unions, and that this was not acceptable. Cruddas, Benn and (to a much lesser extent) Blears called for more state funding, whereas Johnson was opposed. Hain called for state funding to be used for political education, not for campaigns.
Blears, meanwhile, tried to shift responsibility for the Cash for honours scandal, suggesting the problem predated her and that, "we're all members of the Labour Party, it's been a difficult time for all of us". Words cannot describe what a poor excuse that it. The only reason I didn't throw a pint glass at the TV when I saw that is because it's not my TV and it's probably worth about 5 grand.
With regard to the suggestion of amnesty for illegal immigrants, the discussion did not go in to specifics. Harman was broadly in favour, Johnson said he was "attracted to the idea" and Cruddas argued that a degree of "earned regularisation" had a part to play. Benn and Blears were both opposed, whereas Hain expressed fears that this would the BNP and said that he didn't "think there can be a fair settlement for this".
Next the candidates were asked how they would differ from Prescott as Deputy Prime Minister. Benn said he would not take the job, as he believed the post of Deputy Prime Minister to be unnecessary. Blears emphasised her loyalty to the government, suggesting she would do sweet FA, Johnson said that he "would not differ" and claimed that he would a) be very working class and b) would be able to tell the Prime Minster "what he doesn't want to hear". Harman stressed that she could bring issues of concern to women to the centre of the political debate. Cruddas admitted he does not expect to win and said he would not take the role of Deputy Prime Minister, whereas Hain said he believed that the Deputy Leader should be at the heart of government and in the process attacked Cruddas' lack of ministerial experience.
Finally, the candidates were asked who they would endorse if they were not running. Only Cruddas gave a straight answer, naming Harman. Johnson enigmatically remarked that "he might want to name someone else", Blears said she supported Johnson for his politics and Cruddas for the way he has run his campaign. The other three provided no real answer.
So, at the end of this, what can we conclude? I'd argue Cruddas narrowly won because he raised his profile and was much more forthright in his positions. Harman's policy positions were similar, but hedged about more, so she may have come across as trying to attract the soft left from without rather than within. Hain was the big loser. His appeal seems to be aimed at socially liberal members, but these are largely concentrated on the left and he never really staked out clear ground for himself. Some also perceived him as being arrogant.
Johnson may have suffered by revealing himself as a lockstep Blairite. He appeared flat at times and his candidacy seems to be more about who he is than what he stands for. Blears would not be out of place on the Conservative frontbenches, but it's no secret that she's an ultra. I don't think she gained or lost. Benn remains the favourite (although the only poll I've found is from September 2006 and includes David Milliband but not Hain or Cruddas). He appeared to have well thought out positions, but he was rather quiet throughout the debate. Were it not for the fact that Newsnight is watched by only a very small proportion of the population, most of them middle class and politically aware, this low profile might have hurt him. As it is, he probably did OK.
If you've got 50 minutes spare, watch the debate and vote in the poll.