Last night’s hustings in Westminster Central Hall for the would-be Labour leader featured four amnesiacs in suits and a no-hoper. You’d think the last 13 years never happened. Diane Abbott was the best by a mile but most probably because she has nothing to lose.
Hosted by the Christian Socialist Movement and co-organised with Chinese For Labour, Faith (rather than religion) dominated the tone of the beauty contest between Milibands Ed and Dave, Ed Balls, Diane Abbott, and the one no-one can remember. Andy “Zeppo” Burnham’s crew of bright young things flanking the entrance to the venue was the only group who failed to bring along enough leaflets, thus leaving the audience with even less of an idea of who he is than they had before. If they couldn’t organise even this properly, would I trust him with the top post? I don’t think so.
The session started with a prayer, or rather an evocation of thoughtful things on which we were all invited to reflect or pray for a minute. I know the supernatural is about the only things that will get this poor planet out of its current mess but I was too fascinated by the panel in repose to do my bit of introspection. Zeppo Burnham, Ed Miliband and Diane sat with downcast eyes while David and Ed Balls bored straight ahead with thousand-yard stares, most likely going through their speeches but looking defiantly like material men begging brownie points off Richard Dawkins.
With two or three hundred souls in the hall, the event proceeded stodgily with the same old homilies, platitudes and a set of buzzwords straight out of the new wave of Labour PR’s lexicon. I chortled each time a candidate dropped in their set of words whose use in any meaningful way had practically been banished during their 13-year tenure in power: poverty, radical, life chances; love, compassion and caring (I kid you not, from Ed M); even Martin Luther King (Ed M again). Ed Balls was now “representing the voiceless”. David Miliband declared that “Wherever there is injustice, we have a duty to be there”. His brother Ed thought the markets were too powerful and decried the fact we have the longest working hours in Europe, while Zeppo remembered watching the local striking miners from his school bus in 1984 and now realises the Christian ethos of “Love thy neighbour as thyself” was one and the same as the Christian Church.
May I just remind everyone, in case you have the fabled attention span of a goldfish, that these four guys all served as ministers during the longest reign of the Labour Party during one of the wealthiest decades we’ve seen? An era synonymous with big arrogant warmongering government, when the gap between rich and poor widened for the first time ever under Labour?
Not that they let you forget their status: they just didn’t want you to link it to the fact that these were the junior leaguers in the Labour government that lost us the election, allowing a ConDem lash-up to pillage what’s left of this nation’s wealth. Whenever someone slipped in, “When I was minister for blah-blah”, I doubt I was the only one to think, well, if you were so powerful, why didn’t you act more like you’re talking now when you were in office?
But only weeks later, they were now filled with regret. They were rueful about how in power they were too elitist and top-down, how they never listened. Really? Then what was all that emphasis on focus groups about? They told the party faithful to be active in the community. Zeppo said “People should see us doing, not just talking, on our long walk back to power.” So more cosmetics, then, Andy, a mask ready to be dropped the minute you get back in?
Strangely, no-one apart from Diane spoke of Afghanistan, but her unfortunate breathless gabbling meant I missed if she mentioned Iraq. Only Zeppo dared to mention Tony “Banquo’s Ghost” Blair, citing “that excellent photograph” of his hero surrounded by “Blair Babes” as an example of equality for women in politics. Funny, I remember it as a time when swathes of old Labourites representing socialist values were being ousted by a lot of airheads.
I didn’t buy the renewal of their core “values” (another key word used promiscuously tonight). You just knew the guy surrounded by non-white children in the pic on his leaflet would be the most gung-ho about making immigration an issue. And so it was with Ed Balls, who tabloid headline writers are praying wins the premiership. (Will their Eds rule their Balls? That sort of thing. Only funny.) He, poor man, followed Diane’s powerful indictment of Labour’s pandering to immigration fears whipped up by the media in which she pointed out that concerns about the foreigners in our midst increased the further you got from centres of immigrant population. She was “alarmed” that the false notion had taken hold that “not being tough enough on immigration had lost the election”. She saw those fears as a proxy for real fears about housing, job losses, and so on.
But even the sainted Diane still proposed cuts to deal with the deficit in a ratio with tax of 50/50, rather than the Tories’ 80/20. Hey, Diane, we haven’t had the money back from bailing out the banks. Why should we pay any more? As Harpy Marx told me, Vanity Fair investigated and found that, in America, a lot of the money’s simply disappeared. We should not have to endure one penny of cuts at least until we have our dosh back. And even then …
Ed Miliband pointed out that the crisis is not due to the public sector — as ConDem and their media would have us believe — but was caused by banking irresponsibility. David said you have to run a deficit which will never reduce if you get no growth. “The broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden such as the Mansion Tax.”
Diane told us that, along with her 50/50 cuts/tax ratio, she’d bring in bigger bank taxes (the Robin Hood tax got the thumbs -up all round) and a wealth tax, while she would bring the troops home from Afghanistan and end Trident, as even generals no longer support it. No-one else mentioned these options for cutting expenditure, and the guys actually looked quite shifty.
Shiftiness was in further abundance when, in answer to a question about child asylum seekers being locked up, Ed Balls squirmed as former Minister for the infamous Yarl’s Wood detention centre. He somehow managed to offload responsibility for its brutal regime onto the Home Office and Immigration Ministry, but was too slippery for me to nail this particular jelly to the wall and determine exactly how he did this, and by this point in the proceedings I was already losing the will to live. He did claim credit-by-association for the reduction in the number of children being locked up in the prison system, but then revealed more subterfuge by blurting out that they had to keep this fact secret or else it would have been reversed, presumably because they kept appeasing the Daily Mail agenda.
By the end, I was the only one still making notes while my two companions, Louise at Harpy Marx and Gwei Mui of Takeaway Thoughts had put their pens away and were wondering how they were going to get back their two hours. Gwei Mui and I wondered what this event had to do with the Chinese who had organised it with the CSM; we were two of only a handful of Chinese in the audience. More widely, there was no illumination, no sense of real change and a galvanisation of the labour movement. It was business as usual with a few crumbs thrown in. As Diane said, another nice statement from another nice man in a nice suit. Nuthin’ changes.
An excellent summary by Harpy Marx here
Anna’s food blog here: