What can we learn from the first showdown of Labour's leadership hopefuls?

On 7 May Labour faced an evening of disbelief and a night of saddened realisation. As a party we are now finding the strength to reassess, learn and rebuild. At the forefront of that process is the election a new leader.  

At Progress Annual Conference this weekend the leadership hopefuls, and Tristram Hunt who is yet to declare, got an opportunity to lay their cards on the table. Chair, Simon Fanshawe, did not let the panel members off easily though, and nor did the audience. Listening to the speakers it was clear that the themes of the day were 'aspiration', 'innovation' and 'looking ahead' - or at least they were the much repeated buzzwords.

Between the potential leaders there was a lot of agreement, which is heartening, although there were also many points of contention - which perhaps in a different way is also heartening too. Labour encompasses a broad church of the left movement, and it is good that those sitting on the stage reflected this. We need a decisive leader, one who after debate stands firm and leaves the buzzwords for the journalists. None of the contenders are perhaps there yet, but their rhetoric showed some glimmers of their priorities.

The general questions put to the potential leadership candidates were around the jobs of the future, technological advances and how we can be the party of aspiration within the changing face of the UK.

Hunt, who has yet to declare, managed to control each answer and bring it back to his comfort zone of education. This might show us that he would be a controlled leader who may bring us back to the time of ‘education, education, education’. When talking about advances in technology Hunt was the only panellist to mention the flip side and the need to invest in human capital to develop and run new advances in technology.

Education was also a key theme for Liz Kendall. As a self-defined moderniser, she was on home ground in a room full of Progress members, but generally rose to the occasion. She chastised the forthright chair when he said they should look to the future by retorting 'you were the one who asked us to look at the past!'. In the words of Fanshawe she was unafraid to offer 'unsolicited personal advice'. She also offered passion. Her answers centred on education, aspiration, and making a case for the EU. When asked about public services she brought it back to ‘value for money’ and putting the power back into people's hands. Will this be her messaging going forward? It certainly seems as though she will be unafraid to relook at the policies made under Miliband and bring to the fore value for money, technological advancements and education.

Mary Creagh, who is generally considered to be an outsider, was clear in her well-prepared answer when responding to the last Labour Government's spending record, saying that it did act fiscally responsibly, it did get the debt down, but got it wrong when it came to reliance on financial services. Labour profligacy was subject to a fascinating debate earlier in the day when Professor Tim Bale commented that for Labour to be able to move on there must be an apology, even begrudgingly. It can come with a qualification if needs be but apologise, draw a line under it and move on. He made the analogy of a personal apology: to keep friendships we have all apologised even if we were not sure it was justified but for the sake of building relationships we understand that the apology has to happen. For Labour we are now at this point and we should do the same.

Back to the leadership debate though, and Creagh received a large round of applause for decisively saying 'we should offer to take migrants from Syria'. Through being critical yet acknowledging the strengths of the last Labour Government’s spending record, at the same time as laying out a strong case for being more open to asylum seekers, Creagh seems to offer a more outward-looking perspective with her candidacy.

Yvette Cooper focussed on women and the value that bringing more women into the workplace offers both society and the economy. She quipped that we should not just want to be fostering the next ‘Steve Jobs' but 'Stefanie Jobs' too. A focus on gender equality would be high up on Cooper's agenda. She also used the rhetoric of creating a ‘fair society’ and ending exploitation. Her case for being a leader who cares about inequality was clear.

Andy Burnham started by emphatically declaring his loyalty to all past leaders he had served under: Blair, Brown and Miliband, and brought this back to loyalty being at the heart of Labour values, something which may play well with the membership. This beginning though, then allowed him to criticise Labour on its past economic record and on migration, having already assured the room of his Labour loyalties. He stood by many of the past policies, such as ending zero hour contracts, cracking down on firms paying less than the minimum wage and the cuts in tuition fees. Yet he also offered up some new ideas such as ‘taking taxes off aspiration’ and making it easier for young people to start a business. This might offer up some idea on what Burnham will take from Miliband's administration and where he will go in regards to SME business growth.

It was a packed session and there is too much to get down in a blog post but generally the entire panel agreed broadly on innovation, the role of tech - although with varying levels of understanding - and the need for early intervention. Within this they all seemed to put forward the assertion that education needs to be more to the front of Labour's offer than it has been over the last five years.

The top buzzword of the discussion was ‘innovation.’ All the MPs felt that the Labour Party has to innovate and look to the future. Here's hoping that the leadership candidates can cut through platitudes and rhetoric to do just that in the next few weeks and then the years to come.

Ellie Groves is a Young Fabain Executive Committee member and Editor of Anticipations. She tweets from @EllieRuthGroves

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