Morning Lemmings. Aaaaaaaaaaaand we’re back. Yes, that’s right, after six gloriously non political weeks, the inexorable death machine that is Question Time has stuttered back into life, ready to grind our feeble minds into nowt but carbon and broken dreams. Now, those of you who’ve hung around this corner of the internet in the past may well remember that I issued a series of threats at the end of the last series that hinted at LCCPQTMR getting something of a revamp. As it happens, these threats have turned out to be of the ‘hollow’ variety and as is abundantly clear, nothing has changed. I’d like to think I have some sort of valid excuse for this behaviour, but the brutal truth is that I’ve spent most of the last 6 weeks playing Silent Hunter 4. Silent Hunter 4 is a submarine simulator. I am not proud of this fact. Still, on the plus side, should someone ever invent a time machine, grant me access to a submarine and subtly change the laws of hydrodynamics, I’d have the war in the Pacific over and done with in a couple of weeks, saving millions of lives in the process and possibly changing history for the better. So maybe the last 6 weeks of sinking Japanese tonnage hasn’t been in vain.
Enough of this and back to the matter in hand: Ok, so this is the first in the new series and imagine my delight at the prospect of a Labour leadership special. I say ‘delight’, but the word I’m actual looking for is ‘nonplussedness’ given that so far, the Labour leadership contest has been stultifyingly dull, despite the media’s best attempts to wish some sort of ‘Kain and Able’ narrative into existence. So with this in mind, let us make ready for another journey into the depths of the political abyss (no submarine pun intended).
Q1: Do you agree with Tony Blair that you lost the election because you abandoned New Labour?
Q2: Do you agree with The Economist that if Ed Miliband swings to the left, he’ll win the leadership but lose the election?
Q3: Given Labour’s relationship with the unions, will strikes damage the party’s image?
Q4: Is Ed Miliband’s and Ed Balls’ opposition to the Iraq war sincere or a cynical ploy?
Q5: Big Brother has just ended. Who would the candidates evict from the leadership contest?
In The Red Corner: David Miliband, Shadow Foreign Secretary, apple of Hilary’s eye and professional banana handler.
David Miliband has a nasty habit of falling through the gaping cognitive chasms in my mind. On the face of it, this guy should be a shoo-in for the leadership given that he’s clearly quite brainy, has had plenty of experience on the frontbenches and has the backing of some rather impressive names from across the party. However, there are a number of flies in the ointment, namely some fairly nefarious ‘warz and torturez’ business that occurred on his watch as Foreign Sec, a ringing (and badly coded) endorsement from Tony Blair and lets face it, standing as the continuity candidate when your party has taken a right thumping at the polls may not be as great an asset as it’s cracked up to be. On top of this, there is something about him which winds me up a little: Every time he speaks, it’s like he’s delivering a massive set piece. Lets say he’s down at the newsagents, looking to buy a packet of fags. Chances are he would tip his head forward slightly in that ‘Warning! Solemnity approaching!’ type manner and then start by slowly acknowledging the newsagent’s “heartfelt and steadfast” commitment to the business of disseminating periodicals before launching into dramatic pause laden and sincere appeal for a packet of Amber Leaf. In some ways, I can see that this is an inevitable byproduct of rising up the ladder under Blair’s patronage, but the bitter truth is that Blair was better at it. Much better at it (providing you ignore the ‘hand of history’ and other related cases of hyperbole).
Another problem for him as well is that much of his campaign is built upon the notion that he is the ‘unity’ candidate. That in itself is not a bad thing, but when it comes to an arena like Question Time where the only currency that counts is the blood spilt and misery inflicted upon one’s foes, it has the unfortunate effect of painting you into a corner. After all, you can’t really claim to be all about ‘the team’ while at the same time bad mouthing some of its most prominent members who happen to be sitting next to you. As a result, his early efforts in Q’s 1 and 2 hinged heavily around avoiding taking any other panellists to task and instead stressing the ‘it’s time to move on’ line, sprinkled with a dusting of “I’m progressive” (which is somewhat of a debased coinage these days as bloody everyone’s at it) and attempts to shift the focus back onto the Tories. Danger loomed in Q3 as he skitted around whether he would back strikes but relief presented itself in the form of a firefighter with a specific beef. This proved to be a handy getaway vehicle and by the time Q4 rolled up, he had effectively short-ciruited the issue and got to look very earnest/concerned along the way (I noted some head-tipping-forward action, the tell tale ‘Serious Miliband is serious’ manoeuvre). Sticking with the hedged bets/non-aggression plan, he spotted the not-so-well concealed ‘have a go at your brother’ ambush in Q4 and instead picked up some nice claps for his line about “building peace” but then followed it up with more forward-head-tipping and a reminder that because we were still in Afghanistan, we’d need someone who knows about this kind of thing. The thing is, the way he said it sounded like a threat and it carried a slightly sinister undercurrent. Finally, he once again avoided directly attacking anyone in Q5 by jumping on the back of some schmaltzy ‘brotherly love’ footwork that Ed Miliband pulled, but nearly ballsed it up by trying to turn it into a joke about Diane Abbott.
I can’t say I envied his position tonight. Being the establishment candidate with quite a bit of baggage, he had the most to lose and although his refusal to play the Question Time game and start calling people names was annoying, I have to confess that I would have done the same in his position. In this respect he did a pretty good job and there’s no doubt that he’s a shrewd and gifted politician. However, there’s still something missing for me and I think that’s probably to do with the fact that he can’t quite get across what he believes in, other than the obvious non sequiturs and he’s been around long enough for some of his schtick to look slightly hackneyed. Forward-head-tipping, David… It has a shelf life.
A non-damaging but non-victorious 5/10
Also In The Red Corner: Ed Miliband, Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and fratricidal stalking horse.
Poor old Ed. Rumour has it that some of the nastier boys in the Labour camp keep calling him ‘Forrest Gump’ on account of his physical resemblance to the man in question. So shocked was I by this playground behaviour that I went to all the trouble of photoshopping him into a poster of the eponymous movie, just to prove that he doesn’t… even if he does (see Fig. 1).
So yes, Ed is the younger brother of David and of late, he’s been making quite a stir by looking like a serious contender for the position of leader and in some ways, it’s easy to see why. As I mentioned above, the elder Miliband doesn’t quite have the knack for looking naturally at ease (especially when he takes what should be straightforward sentences and turns them into the Gettysburg Address), but Ed has it in spades. Not only that, but Ed has a talent for sounding genuinely sincere and although he was nominally Brown’s man, he has escaped a severe tar brushing by staying out of departments where he could properly bugger things up and by being elected after the Iraq War vote. On top of this, Ed seems to have something that Labour has lacked for a very long time and that is ideas (or at least ideas that weren’t cribbed from the front page of yesterdays Daily Mail). His brother may have the Westminster smarts, but Ed’s got the ‘belief’ thing going on and not in the crazy ‘I TOTALLY believe in myself’ way that Blair had. Before I get too carried away though, it would be prudent to mention that he does have a few downsides, first and foremost being that never holding a job where he could really bugger things up doesn’t naturally stand you in good stead as a leader. Another flipside to one of his advantages (being elected after the Iraq vote) is that for every time he can say “I wouldn’t have voted for war” someone else can also say equally believably say “Liar!”. Oh, and he’s got that strange, hepatic tint to his skin tone that John Redwood has. Maybe they’ve been sharing needles.
In actual fact though, his performance was pretty similar to his brother’s and most of Q’s 1 and 2 were spent doing the whole ‘draw a line under New Labour/unity’ pitch, although he did occasionally lapse into listing all the things he stood for at times when that wasn’t really relevant. However, he did venture out a little further than David did on Q3 and stated that he would back “cautious action” from the unions before realising that might have sounded dangerously like an actual opinion and retreated to talk of getting everyone “round the table”. Further opinions stuck their head above the parapet in Q4 when he called for a foreign policy more independent of America, but he managed to somehow bluster his way out of condemning his brother’s stance on Iraq by saying he wasn’t a “direct decision maker” at the time. That’s a technically correct if slightly dubious assertion and unfortunately for him, Abbott got wind of this and bought him crashing back down to earth to considerable applause. Finally, he played a blinder on Q5 by telling us how much he loved his brother and managed to lap up the assorted ‘Ahhhhhhhhhhhs’ without looking like too much of a twat.
Stood next to his brother, he did come across as more human and in some ways, more convincing. However, I still got the sense that many of his punches were pulled and dammit, this is Question Time! If I want to see a display of congenial tiptoeing, I can always watch the Antiques Roadshow for at least 23 hours a day on the Yesterday channel. No! I want blood! BLOOD! Still, not a bad turn by Miliband The Younger.
A semi convincing 6/10
In The Now Somewhat Overcrowded Red Corner, Ed Balls, Shadow Secretary of State for Education and repeat political death-cheater.
“Ha!” thought I on hearing the news that Ed Balls was standing for the Labour leadership. “Poor man! All these years locked in the Treasury Asylum with Gordon Brown have finally got to him! He’s gone native! Plumb loco!”. And on the face of it, who could blame me as at that point Balls was the dictionary definition of ‘damaged goods’. If something had gone wrong, Balls could usually be spotted fleeing the scene of the crime with a great big ‘I dun it’ sign stuck to his back and would then dig himself even further into the mire by fibbing about it in the most ineffectual manner. Then things started getting slightly weird. While the other candidates (excluding Abbott) went in for a prolonged bout of hand wringing and collective self flagellation, Balls seemed to remember that they were in fact in opposition and that the crew on the other side of the Commons were having a gay old time turning the country on it’s head. Faced with this scenario, Balls did what he does best and resorted to political violence, first by beating Gove to a bloody pulp in the Commons before turning his ire on Osborne and raining down such contempt on him that even Boris Johnson was forced to concede that he may be right. “Hmmm,” thought I, “maybe the madness was only transient in nature”. And do you know what? I think it was.
This shocking lack of madness began to manifest itself in Q1 where after the perfunctory ‘learn lessons’ spiel, he dived headlong into some Tory bashing and singled out Ed Pickles for special treatment. Not content with that, he then had a go at Mandelson in Q2 while mixing in some crowd pleasing ‘I’m for the little guy’ stuff . “This is more like it!” I thought, “Some action at last!”. Q3 saw him get further into his stride by kicking Osborne about over the economy, although quoting Keynes twice in as many minutes was slightly overwrought and not actually answering the question confirmed that there was indeed quite a bit of the Old Balls left in him. Not enough as it turned out though, to derail him on Q4 when he asked about whether he would have voted for the Iraq war. Now, the Old Balls would have tried to bullshit this one, but the New Balls actually came clean, said he would of but that he would have been wrong and we needed to apologise. I nearly choked on my beer. Finally, he tried a slightly rubbish Diary Room analogy on Q5 but did follow that up with taking the piss out of George Galloway, just to make sure we all knew that he hadn’t gone soft.
I have to say, I was totally blindsided by Balls tonight. After watching his recent turns in Parliament, I thought he was probably using the leadership contest as a way to land a cushy job with whoever wins. After tonight though, I think he does actually believe he can do this. Of course, that’s not going to happen, as was made abundantly clear by the audience who took great pleasure in pantoesque hissing whenever he over stepped the mark, but I have to come clean and say that I actually enjoyed watching him tonight, despite the familiar odour of bullshit that sometimes wafted from his direction. With this in mind, maybe it’s time for me to get my head checked.
A very out of character 7/10
Red Corner? Yeah, Red Corner Again: Andy Burnham, Shadow Secretary for Health and Thunderbird impersonator.
Ok, I’ll keep this brief because I’ve wibbled on enough. Andy Burnham is one of those guys who’s name you know, you just about recognise but never really register. That’s not to say he’s especially unlikable, it’s just that he never does anything that memorable and he looks like he works in a Job Centre Plus on Merseyside. However, one thing he is good at is appearing on telly and he put this to good use tonight. He got off to a shaky start by saying he respected Tony Blair because he was tough on crime but at least he was pretty honest throughout, even going as far to remind the rest of the panel that Labour would have made cuts as well. He was generally quite well received by the crowd and it’s fair to say that he seems pretty competent, even if he is of a wing of the party that’s probably had it’s day. I’d like to say that he’s got a fighting chance in this contest, but unfortunately, I can’t and that’s mainly down his Forgetability Factor. Try as I might, this man just won’t stay in my brain and even writing this now, I’m struggling to think of anything that notable that he did on the show. Still, there was no shame in how he did and I think he’s probably in line for a pretty good job, whoever wins. Now, what was I talking about again?
A wantonly ordinary 5/10
Oh Come On QT, This Is Ridiculous… ALSO In The Red Corner: Diane Abbott, career backbencher and (if certain sections of the media are to be believed) living incarnation of Karl Marx (see Fig. 2).
It would totally suck if you pissed off Diane Abbott. She’s got that way of telling people off that isn’t unreasonable, but makes you feel so very guilty, like a child sent to confess to the elderly owners of the cornershop that they’ve stolen some penny sweets. She was also by far the most fun panellist tonight, given that she really couldn’t give two hoots about winning and hasn’t got any of the baggage that they have. Straight off the bat, she made no bones about pouring scorn on Tony Blair in Q1, damned the Iraq war to hell and back throughout and also said that she would back union action. Having the leeway that the other candidates lacked, she also managed to put Ed Miliband back in his place on some Iraq chicanery and made a belting point about how “International Law” should be the guiding principle for Labour on foreign policy. Naturally, the crowd lapped it up and she was by far the biggest recipient of applause, which raises the question “why couldn’t she be leader?”. Well, I think the truth is that she doesn’t want to and I don’t blame her. She’s got a great little niche right now, acting as the conscience of the party but in a way that isn’t overly pious and anyway, how could she get her fix of weekly Portillo flirting if she was in the top job? Some things in life are just far too important to give up.
An essentially irrelevant but largely enjoyable 7/10
The Crowd: London
Ok, so this wasn’t wasn’t your ordinary crowd, what with it being 50% Labour supporters and neither was it an ordinary Question Time. Shorn of a clear enemy and with the need to not piss anyone off too much, most of the panellist found themselves in a weird twilight where their regular forms of attack and political weapons couldn’t be used. As a result, it had this disjointed, scrappy feel to it (at first I thought I was a bit rusty from the break as I had trouble keeping up with the note taking, but it soon became clear that this was a messy affair by its very nature) and as I mentioned before, there wasn’t half enough punch ups for my liking. The same applied to the crowd and although Ed Balls played the villain quite well, I think they were also quite shocked by just how good he was that night. In terms of who won, I really couldn’t call it. Everyone got a slice of the applause action and everyone got slightly busted at some point or other. Audience members of note this time include an actor who braved the wrath of Dimbers to get all a bit passionate/flouncy about the film council and a besuited thirtysomething who’s head was so perfectly cubic that you could eat your dinner off the top of it (providing you don’t mind hair in your dinner).
An odd but enjoyable 6/10
Ok, that’s your lot. Next week Question Time is back to the regular format, so fingers crossed that it’s an utter shitstorm that quenches my thirst for violence. By the way, you can follow LCCPMQTR on twitter (www.twitter.com/loudribs) or on facebook, but I warn you now, I am a rubbish tweeter and if you want to check out people much better at it than me, have a peek at www.twitter.com/markinreading and www.twitter.com/dimblebot. These guys have got the whole QT/Twitter thing nailed.
Now, about that Japanese shipping….