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Mission accomplished by Ed Balls in Channel 4's Labour leadership debate

By Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2010-09-01 at 20.59.19 There've been very many Labour leadership debates over this long summer.  Few have followed them in detail.  This evening's one, hosted by Channel 4, may have been different: after all, Labour members' ballot papers are currently arriving in the post.

I watched it with three questions in mind.  What was each candidate trying to do?  Did he or she succeed?  And - finally and subjectively - which one, in my view, looked most likely to follow Tony Blair as a Labour election-winner?

So let me deal with each in turn - pointing out at the start that the event had a Darwinian flavour: the candidates were allowed a lot of latitude by Jon Snow to jostle for verbal space, interrupt each other, and shout each other down (or attempt to).

The candidates were asked about the Blair autobiography, the economy, immigration, the 50p tax rate, housing, and universal benefits - as well as which candidate would be their second preference (the Milibands named each other), and which actor they'd like to be played by in a film.


Diane Abbott

Aim: I read it as: to push the Diane Abbott brand, and her ideas - in that order.

Performance in debate: TV-fluent, punchy, skilled at presenting herself as an outsider in touch with Labour Party members and voters.  Clear and strong on scrapping Trident.

Election-winning appeal: In the almost unthinkable event of her winning, she'd attract the media to the same degree that she'd repeal the voters.

All in all: 5/10.


Andy Burnham

Aim: to promote his slightly ecletic, somewhat Old Labour, north-focused brand, and presumably boost his Shadow Cabinet prospects post-poll.

Performance in debate: He was clear, not targeted by other candidates (probably because he's not going to win), and got across his agenda of tax rises, immigration control, and - interestingly - firmer controls on NHS spending than the Government.

Election-winning appeal: Couldn't see it extending from his north-west base beyond the Midlands into the south.

All in all: 6/10.


Ed Balls

Aim: To confirm himself as a big hitter who can't be denied a top post by either Miliband brother.

Performance in debate: Outstanding in his distinctive, aggressive way.  Leapt in to answer the immigration and universal benefits questions first.  Tried to turn the tables on Jon Snow when the candidates were asked about deficit reduction by challenging the basis of the question.  Like Burnham, apparently tough on migration policy.  Of all the candidates, he was the one who best achieved his debate aim.

Election-winning appeal: Balls would be a very strongly-flavoured marmite candidate: either loved or hated.  The debate confirmed that the love wouldn't extend beyond his base - but also that he's run a strong, gritty, rooted campaign that's been relatively free of banal abstractions.

All in all: 7/10.


David Miliband

Aim: To make a successful pitch to party members.

Performance in debate: The candidate that the others - especially Diane Abbot - were most keen to shout down.  Constantly appealed for unity.  Fought his way through to be heard more or less when he wanted to be, and looked more urgent and commanding than at the start of the campaign.

Election-winning appeal: His problem is that trying to appeal to party members and floating voters at once produces muddle.  So for the moment, he's prioritised the first at the expense of the second.  For example, he attacked his brother for suggesting tax breaks for employers who pay a "living wage": instead, he said that it should be paid out of a tax on bonuses.  Rowing back from some of the positions he's taken will produce accusations of flip-flopping.  For all his improvement, he didn't look to me like an election-winning "heir to Blair".

All in all: 6/10


Ed Miliband

Aim: To be the soft left candidate who wins through on second preferences.

Performance in debate: Seemed to be the candidate that the others most wanted to target.  Got badly squeezed for time.  Wanted to stick to his mantras on supporting a living wage, a graduate tax and "not retreating into a New Labour comfort zone".  Was originally asked the deficit question on which Ed Balls challenged Snow - and was thus shown up badly by it.  Repudiated Blair's book.

Election-winning appeal: The most disappointing of all the candidates - and the one who seemed to me to be best placed when the contest began.  Seemed to be following Ed Balls' lead on the economy.  Appeared to suggest that 50 per cent of the deficit should be tackled by tax rises.  The media would make short work of him.

All in all: 4/10.