When is a hustings not a hustings? Well, when the only declared candidate for the office in question – the Labour nomination for mayor of London – hasn’t been invited, and the matter at hand is an entirely different election.
That said, while Progress’ latest event in the Campaign for a Labour Majority series wasn’t quite a hustings, it wasn’t quite not a hustings either. Sadiq Khan was indisposed and Christian Wolmar was in the audience, but, otherwise, the whole field was there – Diane Abbott, Andrew Adonis, David Lammy, and Tessa Jowell.
In a refreshing change from the last mayoral race – a battle between a man who couldn’t beat Boris and a woman who couldn’t beat Ken – none of the candidates looked obviously flawed. Carlos Bilardo described his Argentina side as a ‘Diego Maradona and 10 others’ – the Conservatives after Boris would struggle to find the others, let alone a genuine Maradona. Barring a sudden round of baby-eating on the part of the eventual candidate, the next election should be a slam-dunk for any of the Labour contenders, which means that the primary could be a more important election for Londoners than the mayoral race itself.
The demands of the primary, however, mean that events like these, usually so crucial, feel more like a pre-season friendly than a knockout tie; a chance to try out new lines and for the potential candidates to get a feel for it all before the real work of winning the primary gets under way. So who did well, and who needs to head back to boot camp?
Some of the panellists seemed unsure about whether or not to treat the event as an opportunity for a serious discussion or to go on the hunt for votes. Diane Abbott had no such worries, and delivered what was effectively a campaign address. She had the best night: she was punchy, populist and right on immigration, told two particularly good jokes, and even managed to carry off referring to herself in the third person. Of all the panellists, she probably best embodies London’s sense of itself – diverse, from humble origins, on the left but not particularly fond of the Labour party, and now largely middle class – and, at this early stage, she looks like the best candidate.
But I’m not sure she’d be a particularly good mayor. On the big policy questions, she had very little to say; I can easily see her strolling into city hall only to stumble immediately after.
The reverse problem was afflicting Andrew Adonis, who sounded like the best mayor but still has some way to go before he looks like the best candidate. He had a forensic grasp of what ails London and was the master of every question that was thrown his way, but he doesn’t yet look fully comfortable now he is on the bridge and not in the engine room. Yes, he had the best one-liner of the evening and his grasp of the detail was a pleasing contrast to Boris, but he still needs to sound sharper and less professorial.
In fact, a measure of David Lammy could do Andrew Adonis a world of good, who could, in turn, learn a lot from Andrew Adonis. Not every answer has to end with an anecdote, and a David Lammy, with a little more of Andrew Adonis’ policy heft, or an Andrew Adonis with some of David Lammy’s campaigning touch, would make an excellent candidate.
Tessa Jowell seemed to take the event the most seriously, sounding the least like she was mulling a bid and offering the best answers to the question we were ostensibly there to discuss; that is, how Labour wins a majority in 2015. She was the best panellist, but the worst contender, although I’m not sure if she’s trying to be one – yet.
So who won the day? If it had been an exam question, Tessa would have got full marks, because she kept to the topic. If it had been an election, Diane would have won, and if it had been a day at city hall, Andrew would have been the one left smiling, while David sounded like a tough and prepared politician who should be considered the frontrunner – for now. As for me, I was left rooting for Christian Wolmar: I never get invited to speak at Progress events either.
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