You Ask The Questions Special: The Labour Leadership Candidates

We put your queries to the five leadership candidates – from 'Why did the party lose the election?' to 'What's your favourite film?'

Saturday 28 August 2010 00:00

What is your unique selling point?

Ed Miliband: To win again, we need to do more than just change our leader.

People lost a sense of who we are and what we stand up for. We must be the party that stands for a fairer economy, where work is rewarded and we tackle the gap between rich and poor; a society where markets don't reach into every part of our lives; a state which respects and upholds the liberties of the individual and a foreign policy based on values not just alliances.

David Miliband: I can win an election by uniting our party and reaching every part of Britain. There are no short cuts to winning again – it's going to take a lot of hard work. I have the character to lead Labour through tough decisions and back to office.

Ed Balls: I can shorten the life of this Coalition Government by exposing and opposing the Tories and Lib Dems, as I have done throughout this contest. And I would set out an economically credible alternative to the Coalition's ideological and economically dangerous cuts. But I don't just talk and campaign, I get things done – I was the only cabinet minister to implement the Living Wage.

Andy Burnham: I can give Labour what the Tories and Lib Dems don't have: a leader that ordinary people can relate to, and who can provide a real contrast to a cabinet of millionaires across the floor of the House of Commons.

Diane Abbott: I am the only candidate who is not a continuity candidate. I represent real change.

Which person has had the greatest influence on your political career?

EM: My parents – both Mum and Dad. They brought me up to believe that you shouldn't just shrug your shoulders at injustice, you should try and do something about it and that politics could make an enormous and positive difference to people's lives.

DM: My Mum and Dad. They taught me that if you could make a difference you should and if you didn't it was a waste.

EB: Margaret Thatcher. I grew up and studied economics at school in the shadow of 1980s monetarism and mass unemployment. I always wanted to show there could be a better way.

AB: Chris Smith was an inspiration to me as Culture Secretary. My time serving as his adviser could not have given me a better apprenticeship for my own stint in the job. But I have learnt more from David Blunkett than anyone else, particularly on the value of loyalty in politics.

DA: Nelson Mandela. I was lucky enough to be an election observer for the first democratic elections in South Africa. It was humbling to see black people who had been unable to vote all their lives, finally given the right. A great day for democracy.

If you were forced to choose, which other candidate would you recommend your supporters to make their second preference?

EM: David is my brother, and I have huge admiration and love for him, so he will get my second preference. My supporters make their own decisions.

DM: There's one other candidate I love in this election, so it would be my brother.

EB: People should make their own minds up.

AB: My fellow candidates are all talented and decent people. But it's not my place to tell my supporters what to do.

DA: They are all good candidates but I am in this to win it, so I have yet to declare my second preference.

What were the main reasons for Labour losing the May general election?

EM: We shed the idealism that secured our first victory on the back of radical policies like a minimum wage, the windfall tax on utilities and the rebirth of public services. We became technocrats, and people didn't feel like we understood, or would tackle, the real challenges they faced in their lives.

DM: It was always going to be tough after 13 years. But we made it tougher because people couldn't see what our vision of the future was. We'd lost touch with their lives. If I am elected then from the first day I will start rebuilding that trust and winning those people back to Labour.

EB: We lost touch with ordinary working people on issues like jobs, housing, wages and fair migration. They felt that Labour was no longer on their side and no longer standing up for them. And we didn't have a clear enough argument and sufficient policy clarity on the economic choice. We should have ruled out a rise in VAT.

AB: Over time, we became dangerously disconnected from ordinary people and those who had voted for us in 1997. It looked too often as though we had stopped listening – on housing, jobs and immigration. At its worst, New Labour looked hollow – dazzled by power, money and glamour. Many people had lost sight of who we were and what we stood for.

DA: The recession, profound disillusionment with the political class in general and the New Labour elite in particular. And the inevitable pendulum swing after we had been in for three terms. We achieved good results in London and Scotland despite New Labour not because of it. I personally doubled my majority on an increased turnout.

Should tax rises bear a greater share of cutting the deficit than the Coalition Government envisages? If so, roughly what proportion?

EM: Yes. The plan Labour set out in government for two-thirds coming from spending cuts, one-third from tax rises, would have been much less severe than the Coalition's. I have said our election plan would be a starting point but I would look again at the right balance to secure growth, protect public services and ensure we have a clear, credible alternative to what the Government sets out in the spending review.

DM: It's only right that we should all share the responsibility for reducing the deficit. But this week we learnt that those with the least will actually pay the highest price under the Tory- Lib Dem plans. My plan would mean we have £2 of spending cuts for every £1 of tax rises. This is the fair way to tackle the deficit in a way that doesn't hurt those who have the least.

EB: Yes. We need a more balanced approach between growth promotion, spending reductions and fair tax rises. I would go ahead with the national insurance rise and would do more at the top, like starting the 50p rate at £100,000. But the precise proportions will depend on what happens to jobs and growth.

AB: Yes – because spending cuts on the scale proposed by the ConDems will hollow out public services and leave the most vulnerable people in society without the support they need. Labour should therefore make a moral argument for tax playing a bigger part in deficit reduction – particularly a more ambitious financial transactions tax on the banks – and call for a more measured timetable. A cuts/tax balance of 60/40, and a more balanced approach to spending across the departments, would be a credible alternative to the ideological attack we are about to see.

DA: Yes they should. As I have said I would like to see a 50/50 split between cuts and taxation.

Which person do you most admire?

EM: My partner, Justine, for her kindness, her empathy, her patience and her ability to see good in people.

DM: Louise – a great wife and mother and a source of love and strength in my life.

EB: Julie McCandless, my diary secretary in government for 12 years.

AB: I've got huge admiration for the outgoing Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson – a campaigner whose efforts will save thousands of lives and a man with a rare combination of high intellect and down-to-earth humanity.

DA: Michelle Obama. She is a great role model for young women.

How should Labour "move on" from the Blair-Brown era?

EM: We need profound change in the way we do our politics. We need to more clearly stake out a policy agenda based on fundamental values, like equality, and respect for individual liberty. We need to understand that we need a different, less top-down style of leadership. Whether in the Labour Party, the public services or the wider public, many people felt we stopped listening to them because of the way we governed.

DM: I said at the start of the campaign that we need to move on. The real question is, to what? We have a choice. Try a short cut, stay in our comfort zone and try to win again by appealing to a small section or society. Or reach out to every section of society, do the hard work, rebuild the trust we had that won us three elections in a row. The fact is there's no easy option, we have to convince every part of Britain that we have the ideas and values that will make their lives better under Labour.

EB: I think we have already. David Miliband may have worked for Tony, and Ed Miliband and I for Gordon, but all of us are different from those people and the caricatures people like to create. We have learnt from the past. But what worries me at the moment is the way the media are setting this up as simply a choice between the Milibands and setting the brothers against each other. Our party's choice mustn't be between being radical and being credible – or between going with our hearts or our heads. We should demand both and that's what I offer.

AB: We must ensure that the self-indulgent factionalism of that era does not carry forward into this new one. There are those who are seeking to rerun the old battles through this leadership contest. I can bring a genuine break with all that as I was equally loyal to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. But Labour needs fundamental change, not more of the same. New Labour was born of a distrust of its own members and the trade union movement. It was controlling, top-down, elitist and London-centric. But any party which operates in that way will die a slow death. So I will rebuild from the bottom up.

DA: By choosing me as their leader. I am the only candidate who represents a break with that era.

Will you campaign for a 'yes' vote in the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum next year if it goes ahead?

EM: Yes. I am in favour of AV and will campaign for it if there is a referendum. But the Coalition is giving political reform a bad name by spatchcocking together with the AV referendum a naked attempt to gerrymander the parliamentary boundaries.

DM: I strongly support political reform and I would support a system of AV but I do not support the Bill in its current form. I think it makes little sense to introduce reform for the Commons without introducing PR for the House of Lords. The Lib Dems are giving parliamentary reform a bad name.

EB: It's not looking very likely at the moment. I'm a long-standing supporter of AV, but constitutional reform has to be done in a proper way. I'm very wary of what Cameron and Clegg are doing by tying electoral reform to the gerrymandering of constituency boundaries.

AB: I am tending towards supporting AV but am not yet fully persuaded. I also believe it is quite wrong for such an important referendum to take place on the same day as hugely significant elections in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. As Labour leader, these elections will be my priority.

DA: Yes I will. It was a manifesto commitment. And I have always voted for anything that was actually in our manifesto. It is illegal wars that I have a problem with.

Is New Labour dead?

EM: Yes. I think we must change and move on. New Labour was an incredibly powerful electoral force. But it was of its time and that time has now gone. The job for our party is to find a new response to the challenges that affect people today: the state of the economy, strengthening public services, climate change, crime and all the other issues that matter to people.

DM: It's living and breathing in every community in Britain. It continues to live in the form of new schools, Sure Start Centres, minimum wage, lower crime than when New Labour came into government. We need to learn the right lessons, be proud of our record, humble about our mistakes. Unlike in 1979 the public didn't reject our values or goals at the general election. We must look forward for new ideas and outwards for a new coalition of voters. But let's not pretend that everything we did was bad.

EB: New Labour, old Labour, next Labour, whatever ... We're the Labour Party and should be proud of that. For me, the best period of New Labour was between 1994 and 2001 when we were radical and credible in fighting for social justice, decent public services and a dynamic economy. But I fear it will be remembered more for the weaknesses which derailed New Labour after 2001. We must never forget the New Labour insight that a radical programme for change and fairness must be credible too.

AB: New Labour was right for its time and we must build on the best of it. Tony Blair was right to reposition Labour as pro-business, aspiration and tough on crime – those things should never change. But we need a clean break with the style of politics of the last 16 years. I have described my political philosophy as Aspirational Socialism – the best of old Labour, and the best of new Labour.

DA: New Labour was a marketing tool which worked well in the 1990s, but it has long since come to the end of its natural life.

What was the best moment of your life?

EM: The birth of my son.

DM: I have two – holding my sons for the first time.

EB: The birth of our three children.

AB: Singing "Dirty Old Town" in front of family and friends from every era of my life at my 40th birthday do earlier this year.

DA: The day that my son was born.

Apart from electing you as leader, what are the most important things for Labour to do in order to win the next general election?

EM: We need to show we have changed. Too many people stopped seeing Labour as the party fighting for their interests, and we need to put that right. That means putting our values first. We need to show we are on the side of working people, not the elites. We need to listen more and breathe new life into our movement.

DM: Be honest about our successes and our failures. That means being honest about who we lost, why we lost them and who we lost them to. We need to recognise our Labour values are not a barrier to victory but I think we need to rebuild our party and make it a campaigning movement in all communities across the country.

EB: First, we must stay united. Second, we have to win the argument that there is a credible alternative to the savage and economically dangerous Tory-Lib Dem cuts which risk a double-dip recession. We have to make the case for a different course based on boosting growth and jobs, with fair tax rises and a steadier deficit reduction plan.

AB: Labour must show that it has listened and understood why we lost trust. We must show that we understand what people's lives are like and focus on the issues that matter most to them, such as the economy, jobs and housing. We must put forward a credible alternative vision for the country.

DA: We need to listen to the electorate more. Labour became out of touch with voters, which is the kiss of death to any party.

How long do you think the Lib-Con coalition will last?

EM: The dreadful things they are doing – from the potential breaking-up of the NHS, to the Academies Bill, through the assault on public services – mean we need to lever them out as quickly as possible. I hope the many honourable people in the Lib Dems will recognise, with the help of pressure from us, that they cannot in conscience sustain this government.

DM: This coalition is ruthless. Cameron and Clegg junked half their manifestos to get into government. They will not give up without a fight. So we have to be at our best – better than ever before – to win again. History tells us that Labour is out of office for a decade or more when we lose. We have to buck that trend.

EB: Longer than I'd like it to and longer than many people first thought. Now that Nick Clegg has sold his principles for power, he is not going to let go of it easily. Our task is to shorten the life of this coalition, but I fear this will be a four- or five-year slog in opposition.

AB: It all depends on the mood of the Lib Dem grassroots. But I've now seen enough of the right-wing ConDems to know they don't have a true democratic mandate. I can't accept that the 7 million people who voted Lib Dem voted for a free-for-all in state education, the break-up of the NHS or spending cuts so severe that they will decimate our public services.

DA: Probably the full five years. There are enormous internal tensions. But Nick Clegg is very comfortable with his new Tory friends. And, crucially, the Lib Dems are suffering from a sense of betrayal on the part of innocent left-of-centre voters who voted for them thinking that it was a way of keeping the Tories out. So the Lib Dem poll ratings have collapsed and, if there was an election any time soon, they would be annihilated.

What was your biggest mistake?

EM: All MPs, including me, should take responsibility for not sorting out the parliamentary expenses system before it so massively undermined trust in politics.

DM: If I had known at the time that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, there would have been no need for UN resolutions, no vote in the House of Commons and we wouldn't have gone to war.

EB: I wish I had spent more time on children's social work in my first year as Children's Secretary. The profession wasn't banging on my door asking to see me like the teaching unions were, but I should have been knocking on their door and the reforms I pushed through should have started a year earlier.

AB: I once asked Shimon Peres when he planned to retire. It was when he was about 15 minutes into his spirited and indignant 30-minute answer that I realised I'd made a big mistake.

DA: Not telling more people before the election that, if you vote Lib Dem, you will let the Tories in.

What is your favourite book?

EM: Bleak House was revelation to me as a GCSE student. It is an extraordinary story.

DM: The Gruffalo.

EB: Swallows & Amazons: as a Norwich-born lad it sparked in me a love of the Lake District which has never faded.

AB: David Peace's The Damned United is the one I've enjoyed most in recent times but Tony Harrison's Collected Poems is my all-time favourite.

DA: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.

And your favourite film?

EM: Twelve Angry Men.

DM: Twelve Angry Men.

EB: Some Like it Hot.

AB: Goodfellas –but I love Terence Davies' Of Time and the City as well.

DA: The Godfather.

If you were not a politician, what do you think you would be?

EM: I would love to have been an actor, but don't think I have the talent!

DM: A teacher.

EB: I'd love to be a teacher or a headteacher. I've visited nearly 300 schools in the last three years and it's been really inspiring.

AB: A journalist, probably. My first paid job after university was as a staff writer on a transport magazine called Tank World.

DA: A writer. As a child I loved books and writing. But I would not be like Peter Mandelson, peddling tittle-tattle.

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