WHO won the open Holborn and St Pancras hustings last night? The answer to that will depend on who you want to win this drawn out contest to find a successor to Frank Dobson. For there was hardly a thing to split the four candidates; the four that we were there in person at least. Angela Pober, by being in New York and at at times having to crane her head into the Skype screen of laptop so she could hear what was being said in the hall at the Working Men’s College, was at once at a disadvantage. It was quite a bizarre sight. Logging off halfway through the questions will also not have helped her cause, even if there is a refreshing individuality to her responses.
But for the four on this side of the Atlantic, the questions passed by without a stumble and hardly a reason to think one was better than another. At one stage Raj Chada said he could easily answer one of the questions by just saying ‘ditto’ to another panel member’s response. It would have saved time. There were some mutters afterwards that Sir Keir Starmer did not match a promise by Raj, Sarah Hayward and Dr Patrick French to vote against HS2, but even then the former DPP did not let the moment pass without offering some appropriately loud opposition. They all agreed with clockwork predictability that Clem Attlee was their favourite past Labour PM, not offering a second choice, and everybody was against the Iraq War. And they all thought a Tory victory at the next election would be apocalyptic.
If this was not a panel event, and you just had the text of their answers given to you, voters would hardly have been able to work out who had said what. Yes, to fairness. Yes, to equality. Yes, to fighting those bad Tories. And so it went on. Pity the folk in the hall had seen it all before at the first round of hustings last month. They clapped dutifully for their favourites at the right moments.
The one thing the event did do, however, was dent the Evening Standard’s analysis earlier this week that there are basically only two horses in this race: Sir Keir and Sarah. You may have seen the article, some said it was simply a publication of ‘highly-regarded’ Sir Keir’s CV. At the hustings, however, it felt more open, and that there is some merit to the argument that members actually have a really tough choice on their hands. Dr French showed he could hold his own and should not simply be discounted by the press, even if he might have reason to worry that he is being typecast with a series of questions about the NHS.
And, although it will be disputed here and there, Raj seemed to have the best of the opening speeches, form he would do well to replicate at the now looming December 13 showdown. Sir Keir talked for a little too long about past legal cases, Sarah maybe a little too little having been drawn to go first and obediently following the stopwatch rules. But Raj used his lectern moment to show us he is capable of delivering a bit of passion in his speeches after all, throwing the word ‘socialism’ around without a care. It’s a fair criticism to say this fire was missing in a sluggish performance at Frank Dobson’s retirement meeting earlier this summer, when he did not capitalise on the advantage of holding the chair and having the final word. Yet last night there were glimpses of the young lion, as John Gulliver once called him and his colleagues, who stood out in Labour’s council team way back when. He reminded of us how he ignored the local party control freaks who tried to stop councillors speaking out against the Iraq War at its outbreak… strident, even if the then council leader of the day happened to be Dame Jane Roberts, now one of the members whose endorsement he celebrates.
He seemed more feisty than at the start of the campaign, brave, or naughty, enough to make the slightest of digs at his opponents when he opened up, insisting this contest would not be about who had the humblest beginnings (this after Sarah had just finished talking of her mother’s hardship during her single parent upbringing) and not about what job the winner wanted in government (a thinly-veiled nod to Sir Keir’s link with a top role in a Miliband cabinet). A little disrespectful? Maybe, but a bit of fire is needed now from everyone who doesn’t want the drawn hustings which unfolded last night to be repeated in ten days time.
For if it is another score draw in the final showdown, the Standard will be right, and the candidate with the high profile and name recognition will emerge victorious from an acquiescing panel. The days are ticking, you’d have to think it’s time for the candidates to really show why they are different.