Thursday, May 17, 2007

Labour deputy hustings

Until last night, at the Institute of Education, I’d been almost completely unsure who to vote for as deputy leader. It was useful, but I’m still not quite decided. They’re mostly OK, and all have their merits, but I’m not really wild about any of them.

Partly this is because the role of the deputy is a bit indeterminate – presumably to be thrashed out by Gordon Brown (what exactly is he going to be doing for the next few weeks BTW?) and whomever wins. But it will likely involve three things: (1) mediating between the membership and the cabinet; (2) helping to build up and mobilise the party grass roots; and (3) being a general campaigner (‘minister for the Today programme’). The third is the most optional, depending on the winner’s media skills and public appeal. Whatever other governmental responsibilities the deputy might take up are entirely subject to negotiation.

I think I’d get the prize for the least effectively asked question of the night – apparently waiting for the microphone and then not getting talked over by the chair helps. It was: “How would you refresh the parts that Gordon Brown can’t reach?” It got a few laughs but no interesting answers (nobody fell into the ‘diss the next boss’ trap), and on reflection I’d have done better to ask about one of the first two (more important) aspects of the job listed above. There was some discussion of this, and all of them said reasonable things, but we didn’t get into enough detail (for me, at least) to see very clear distinctions.

In fact, a lot of the questions, mostly about policies, were perfectly interesting but not entirely relevant, because the deputy leader’s views on policy have no special status whatsoever. Five of the candidates obviously couldn’t go directly against the party line, but a few apparent differences did emerge.

Harriet Harman and Peter Hain seemed most sceptical of faith schools. Harman also questioned the merits of specialising at age 11, and Hain seemed least supportive of grammars (he has a record in Northern Ireland to draw on). Jon Cruddas was critical of city academies. Alan Johnson (education secretary) dismissed abolishing faith schools and grammars as electoral suicide.

On a possible Iraq inquiry, Hain, Johnson, Hazel Blears and Hilary Benn were sceptical that it’d be of much use, as people have their own firm preconceptions and would either use the outcome as ammunition or dismiss it. Cruddas thought that an inquiry could help to provide closure and spur national reconciliation (for the UK) over the issue, but most of the others took the view that inquiries (and calls for inquiries) in recent years have come to be a substitute for proper political argument. Harman thought there could be useful things to look into about the decision to go to war and in the (lack of) planning for afterwards.

On civil liberties vs security against terrorism, Hain and Harman seemed to lean more in a liberal direction, with Johnson and Blears tending the other way.

My estimation of how they line up politically from left to right goes: Cruddas, Hain, Harman, Benn, Johnson, Blears. If that matters. I don’t think any of them are really beyond the ideological pale,

Now some (utterly subjective) observations on how they came across:

Hain’s speaking tended towards the mid-range oratory. Good and articulate, but clearly a politician. In answering questions, he was sometimes waffly, verging on the evasive.

Harman spoke fluently and earnestly, but also obviously as a politician (albeit a talented, polished one). She veered from the engaging to the borderline touchy-feely to the dull.

Johnson spoke like an ordinary person; not only was he very direct, but he also came across as more thoughtful than I’d expected.

Blears had an almost constantly cheerful tone (genuine, rather than an act, I think). Her rhythms of speech sometimes felt as though she was addressing children, stressing simple points in a way designed to make them sound insightful. Certainly sounded chattier than most politicians, but in a way that suggested she’d be doing most of the chatting.

Benn came across as intelligent without being wonkish, passionate without being shouty, and morally concerned without being hand-wringing. He was also wittier than I’d expected.

Cruddas was down-to-earth and straight-talking, sometimes tending to laddishness, sometimes towards seeming maybe a bit of a wide boy.

There was thankfully little managerial jargon from any of them, and not too much sloganising either. It was all pretty good-natured.

One thought that crossed my mind is how I’d vote if they were the candidates for the leadership itself. No contest: Benn is by far the most prime ministerial. Harman and Hain might be passable; Johnson iffy; Cruddas and Blears just too lightweight. So that’s one way of looking at it, and probably not the best way. Who should be deputy?

I’m now pretty convinced that Benn should become foreign secretary, but I don’t really think I want him being distracted by the party deputy role. Hope he gets a decent showing, though.

Cruddas is dead right about the importance of reconnecting with the working-class voters who’ve drifted into abstention or towards the BNP, and if we ignore him on this we need out heads examined. But I don’t understand his aversion to having a target seat strategy. And I’m a little worried that his idea of representing members’ views to the leadership may end up a tad confrontational. During his campaign, he’s at least singed some of his bridges with the current government. Criticism is fair and often justified, but I could see the Tories throwing some Cruddas quotes in Brown’s face.

Harman has a fair point that there are merits in Brown having a woman deputy, but her repetition of this (and of the fact that she is indeed a woman) wore a little thin. The rest of her pitch didn’t seem to amount to much. She’s certainly talented and reasonably media-friendly (in light of Cameron) and deserves some sort of job – and doubtless Brown will have a number of prominent women in the cabinet – but I don’t know why warming the hearts of the party faithful should be the job for her.

Blears has some good points about local party involvement with community activities, and her enthusiasm shouldn’t really count as a minus (I can be a cynical old sod sometimes). She said she wanted to be a “campaigner-in-chief”, but whatever her party organisational abilities, I just can’t see her doing the public barnstorming role without starting to grate with anyone not already a big Labour fan.

I don’t really have any strong feelings about Hain. Like Harman, he’s an accomplished politician and if we want somebody who’s visibly leftish (by the standards of this government) but not a risk of becoming an internal dissident, he said he’d be “loyal but independent-minded”.

But I think perhaps Johnson (with his strong union background) might be better equipped to have a good relationship with the grass roots. He also seems to have his head firmly screwed on about electoral strategy, and – as I said – sounds like a normal human being. Then again, he’s not entirely fresh-faced, and he might be a tad rightish for some of the rank and file.

I’m not sure. Right now I could lean towards Johnson, which I wouldn’t have predicted a day ago. But I’ll see what they all say and do in the next few weeks. Some opinion polls of former Labour voters would be nice.

[Update: more write-ups of the hustings here and here.]


Matt M said...

Your question was good enough to get mentioned on the Today Programme earlier. Sadly they summarised what you said rather than let us hear you actually ask it yourself.

Ghost Cabinet said...

You're right - it's hard to get enthusiastic about the role. What you have outlined is a list of tasks rather than responsibilities. The DPM is not responsible for anything.

Tom Freeman said...

Really? Do you remember what time? They probably didn't use it as I yelled it out rather than speaking it into the mic (well, I didn't know it was coming to me)...

As for the DPM post, I can't see any point to it at all.

Matt M said...

Assuming that I've actually remembered it correctly, it was about a quarter past seven.