Labour’s wannabe cheerleaders fail to convince in listless Newsnight hustings

May 30, 2007

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The candidates for deputy leader of the labour party do themselves no favours with disappointing performances in a below-par antiquated and amateurish Newsnight production. Alan Johnson and Hilary Benn do their career prospects least damage. Jeremy Paxton as King Lear is irritated and irritating. A night to forget.

BBC’s Newnight proudly trailed its coup of arranging the first televised debate of the Deputy leadership contest. All six candidates accepted an invitation to appear. The format, set, performances were all pretty dreadful.

Perhaps it was always naïve of me to expect anything enlightening from this kind of speed dating, although some viewers with a taste for black comedy may have found something in the show.

The candidates were each given two minutes for an uninterrupted pitch. This ended with all six standing uncomfortably behind a set of cheap-looking lecterns arranged in a shallow arc. In the next act, Jeremy Paxton asked a series of futile questions. This was followed by the trick or treat game ‘You’ve got to answer YES or NO’ or you will be shown up as the buffoon we all know you really are’. This is usually great fun, because everyone knows that the questions can’t be answered Yes or No. So mostly, the contestants cheated and offered qualified Yes or No replies. At one stage someone answered with a firm Yes, which seemed a surprisingly adequate response.

Tiring of the lack of gratification from this extended play, Jeremy made a remarkable triple-lutz kind of technical move, announcing that he was going to ask each of them in turn a philosophical question. Through some kind act of personal psychological protection I can recall neither question nor the replies it generated. By this time Hilary Benn and Harriet Harman were draped miserably over their flimsy barriers, and Hazel Blears had almost disappeared behind hers.

Overall impact

It would have been an astonishing performance for any candidate to have risen above the nightmarish situation they found themselves in. In a briefer extract from an earlier event, Hazel Blears had seemed to be the most impressive, speaking with warmth and intelligence. These qualities were not so much on view tonight. Jon Cruddas made a reasonable case for a role in which he would gee-up the morale of party activists. Peter Hain was far too weighed down with gravitas. Harriet unconvincing.

Hilary Benn was able, from time to time, to rise above the questioning with intelligent (but not too clever) replies. I thought both he and Alan Johnson offered the promise of something authentic if they were to be elected. Johnson will eventually be able to avoid mentioning postal deliveries. Benn is well on the way to escaping from being son of a loveable but strange dad.

If only

It would have been wonderful if any candidate had found a way of stopping the performance through some act of creative destruction. That would have shown something special. Would it really have been damaging to a political career? But it was not to be. Newsnight’s curiously banal format trundled on. And, yes, maybe I should have just switched off earlier. No wonder leading politicians are reluctant to accept invitations to appear. Newsnight is likely to be a mostly Gordon-free zone over the coming months.


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