Labour leadership youth hustings

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Some Labour yoof obviously made up their minds very quickly. Before the event officially got underway an enthusiastic group of Milipedes (D) were trying to sign people up to the Shadow Foreign Sec’s leadership campaign. I, however, was undecided and without prejudice. Well, not quite, but I had enough prejudice and partiality towards each one of the candidates that I was refusing to identify myself as a supporter of anyone yet.

Soon enough we all sat down and the big five appeared. Clap clap clap. Questions were asked and answers were given. Ed Balls took the courageous decision to tell a room full of young Labourites that he wanted tuition fees scrapped. Unfortunately for Ballsy this imaginative attempt to come up with a policy that would distinguish himself from the others was diluted by just about all the other candidates joining his call for them to be replaced by a graduate tax (only Miliband D was hesitant).

The best question of the hustings came from a handsome young rogue in the audience who pointed out that the Tories are trying to criticise us from the left over the levels of child poverty and wider inequality in the UK today. The candidates were asked whether they thought the Labour Government had made mistakes in this area and how they would renew the party’s commitment to creating a more equal society.

None of the candidates gave entirely satisfactory answers. All of them – including Abbott – were too eager to spend time defending Labour’s record. This wasn’t the most efficient use of their one minute each since they were addressing a room full of Labour members familiar with the social gains secured between 1997 and 2010 and presumably disposed to giving their own party the benefit of the doubt.

We’ve got to be more honest with ourselves and potential leaders should cut to the chase when addressing party members. Labour failed to meet its own targets for child poverty reduction by 2010. The UK remains a country of inequitable wealth distribution and class divisions. Declaring that over 13 years Labour managed to just about stop the Thatcher-initiated trend towards greater inequality from getting much worse hardly makes an inspirational slogan. Not much of a moral crusade – and if we’re not a moral crusade we are…? 

The five MPs did admit that the Labour government maybe should have been more bold on redistribution. Stern criticism was then levelled at the policies of the coalition and at the decision of Frank Field to join them in their shamelessly sneaky efforts to reduce poverty by fiddling with the statistics. Clap clap clap. But this was easy, crowd-pleasing stuff. If I had been chairing the hustings I would not have allowed them to lay into the Con-Dem Government until they had first declared what kind of anti-poverty strategy they would want to implement.

To be fair, Ed Miliband did sound the most impressive when answering the question. He made clear that reducing the gap between the rich and the poor would be central to his leadership. Talking about the gap is definitely welcome – it’s a healthier egalitarian approach than relying upon the language of ‘social mobility’ or ‘equality of opportunity’. Miliband E also highlighted his support for a living wage and a high pay commission. Hopefully all of them will have more time to think about policies in this area over the next few months.

Another (more self-indulgent) question I would like to have been put to them is: We have two right-wing parties in government who describe themselves as ‘progressives’ and have even talked of imposing ‘progressive cuts’. If we are to provide the country with a strong opposition – a viable alternative – should we perhaps stop using this ideologically indistinct term?

Miliband D has claimed he wants this debate to include discussion around ideology. I agree. Talking about future Labour policy without reference to some sort of ideology programme would be bizarre. However, I also acknowledge that banging on and on about ideology at these sort of public events may not be helpful. It could make the party seem too inwardly focused and weird. Therefore, a simple one minute answer explaining what democratic socialism (it’s in the party constitution, they’re all signed up to it!) means in the 21st century would suffice.

You’ll notice that Andy Burnham is the only candidate who hasn’t been mentioned thus far in this report. Well, that’s because he failed to stand out. Apart from in terms of his accent of course. He didn’t seem to butt into the discussion to explain his own point of view as much as the others did. Maybe he’ll get louder in future events (though hopefully for Andy’s sake it won’t be an IDS-style ‘the quiet man is turning up the volume’!).

All in all, I walked off (to the nearest pub) with the view that I’ll probably first preference Ed Miliband. However, there is still a long time to go before any decision has to be made and I’m determined to remain open-minded. It’s all to play for, comrades!

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