2 Sep 2010

Tone of Labour leadership debate set by Tony

The candidates for the Labour leadership outlined their vision for the party during last night’s Channel 4 News hustings, but Peter McHugh notes that the debate’s biggest player was not in the studio.

Channel 4 News hosts Labour hustings.

It was already a time of great confusion for the viewer. On ITV1, Hannah was being shocked in Emmerdale to find Holly in the house collecting her belongings. On BBC2, Andrew Marr was being shocked to find out that Tony was a boozer. And on Channel 4 we were all being shocked to find the campaign for the Labour leadership was still going on.

Some thought it had been abandoned, following reports of an outbreak of severe ennui up and down the country throughout August. But no, there are still twenty odd exciting days left before we finally know who the new leader will be.

Last night was meant to take us a little way further on that journey but it was hijacked by somebody else’s journey. There was an elephant in the studio, nay a herd of elephants in the studio and they were all called Tony.

The debate should have been about the new leadership but was instead about the old one. The not quite so famous five sat to attention in front of Jon Snow.

The Channel 4 News studio had been dressed in blood-red throughout suitable, some might think, for the occasion. The men demonstrated their loyalty to the cause by wearing red ties, not to be left out Diane Abbott chose red lippy.

But it was Tony, elsewhere for the evening, who dominated the night.

MilibandD should win, after all, he said, 1000 out of Labour’s 3000 local councilors support him.

John obviously frustrated by not being let at the main man mauled his wannabe replacements instead. He accused them of lying to the people, the nation, the party, their mothers and even the press about just how badly Tony and his former lover the clunking great Scottish fist had been getting on.

They squirmed as he demanded to know their relationships with the Dear Leader and his consort. They wriggled as they tried to work out if being friend or enemy was a vote winner or a vote loser. David Miliband, sadly for him Tony’s heir apparent, gave the impression that his one-time hero had been just that one-time.

Brother Ed, on the other hand, shuffled at the charge that he had been one of Gordon’s best buddies. Did he stutter as John accused him of writing Labour’s last election manifesto?

Miliband junior brazened it out. This left the other Ed Balls out on his own since his role as enforcer-in-chief for Gordon is, sadly for him, already a matter of public record. Let’s not be a prisoner of Tony’s view of life he said wistfully.

Andy Burnham, only in the contest to put a marker down for the next time, was more than happy to say he liked both Tony and Gordon.

This left Diane Abbott with the absolute pleasure of knowing neither of them had liked her anyway.

But in a week, when Lord Mandelson made a return from the coffin and Lord Kinnock a return from the grave to join the debate about Labour’s future, it was clear that Labour’s past was still a long way from being laid to rest.

The one policy area in which there was at least some clarity was the realisation that there was something in the future for all of them.

David said he would serve in Ed’s cabinet if he won and Ed said he would serve in David’s. The other three said it was too early to say and by doing so, made it clear they would serve in either. And of course that is where we are still at.

MilibandD should win, after all, he said, 1000 out of Labour’s 3000 local councilors support him.

As for the other 2000 maybe nobody asked. He certainly handled last night better than the others. But brother Ed could still sneak through on the back of the anybody-but-a-friend of Tony’s campaign.

With weeks still to go just how long will at night’s display of we are all friends together last. Over on BBC2 the dangers of never being fully frank were on display to all.

Hair slightly greyer, teeth slightly whiter, it was if he had never been away. Tony was back, smiley as ever earnest as ever and, who knows, honest as ever.

Labour lost because they moved a millimeter away from the New Labour project. Gordon lost because he was an emotional cripple and because he wasn’t Tony or the other way round if you like. Tony admitted to taking a drink or three to get through the working day. He wasn’t an “excessively, excessive” drinker which must be true since anybody who us couldn’t say it.

Meanwhile further out in the unreal world, Nick was still in charge of the country and Dave was still on his holidays.

Peter McHugh is the former director of programmes at GMTV and was this year awarded the Royal Television Society Lifetime Achievement Award.