The paradox of the Geek – or, while Dianne Abbott won’t win the leadership contest, she doesn’t have to lose quite so badly

I know the argument: stroppy teenagers and shop floor Mothers can’t relate to men in suits, yet they end up our representatives every time, and we wonder why people don’t engage with politics.

But hold on, how people could relate to politicians didn’t spur on the anti-politics saga circa the expenses scandal, but rather the other way around, politicians obviously don’t quite understand the electorate – and subsequently fairness and respect for tax payers’ money.

Frankly, this extends further to what politicians talk like, look like and smell like; if they don’t get, they don’t get it, and that trait transcends class, age, race and gender boundaries.

For this reason, there is a strange element to Dianne Abbott’s recent trouble making, when she called the other four leadership contenders “geeky,” in an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg.

We’re used to the disengaged politician now, but it is patent nonsense for Abbott to suggest that she has more chance listening than they have.

I won’t recycle the fact that the only difference between her and her colleagues (apart from her colour, more of which in a moment) is she has never been a SpAd and that she has been an MP for longer. But she has made decisions, and has said things, where you wonder whether he 20 years listening to her voters has counted for anything, particularly the type of thing she implies here which is that she knows what people want.

The paradox: give me a middle class former policy wonk who admits to needing more knowledge any time, over a middle class, Cambridge educated, long time MP, who implicitly likens herself to Obama, and thinks she knows what the people want.

The world needs a geek.

Now, that Obama quote (where she “doesn’t” compare herself to Obama:

I’m not comparing myself to Barack Obama, because he’s a once in a life-time figure. But two years ago no one could imagine a black man as president of the United States. If that was possible in America, I think people can change here in Britain as well.

Wise words. So do as she says: come next election, vote for the black man.

Fabian Society Labour party leadership hustings

In the copy of progress magazine that I stole from the Fabians’ leadership hustings tonight, Richard Angell interviews David Miliband about his candidacy for the Labour leadership.

In it, there is a quote that just about sums up his campaign:

In his first weekend as leadership contender, the former aide to Tony Blair appears to be distancing himself from New Labour with his call for the party to become ‘Next Labour’.

Miliband the elder is the least comfortable candidate with really identifying where the New Labour project, to which he is linked – despite what the above says – failed. He is also the least comfortable candidate when explaining where he wants to see the party go to, in order to change its image from, as Andy Burnham pointed out during the debate, “pro-big business without being pro-ordinary people”.

This comes through in the very New Labour quote above; meaningless symbolism and clap in the words “Next Labour” – it is hard to even make sense of what this could mean. Unlike what the interviewer says, it reveals no distancing whatsoever.

David Miliband went further in his soundbite babblery hatchet job with his opening statement. Among other vague notions he told the audience of Fabians:

the question for us is how we turn the poetry of values into the prose of real change in people’s lives

It didn’t get much better for him, stumbling over safe and habitual epithets, nervous smiles and uncomfortable hand gestures towards Dianne Abbott to his left (!).

A well-known blogger I got talking to recently, toying with whether to have Dave Miliband as his first choice candidate when the party comes to vote, told me that all candidates are trying to weave leftist tenets into their gamut, but nobody is reaching to the right. After wiping up the spillages I had made after hearing that, I realised that nobody else in the party but David Miliband was someone able to do both; someone to remind the party of its regretful right wing flirting past, and one who says through gritted teeth things we on the left vaguely want to hear, but see straight through it when uttered from his mouth. He reminded the audience tonight of how right I am (even if I do say so myself).

After answers to phantom questions about concerns to family life for MPs, agreement across the board about the 10p tax, Burnham’s reception of slow hand clapping for his uncommitted and nervous comments on immigration and the war in Iraq, and boring questions on women MPs and voting systems (boring, only because we already know the answer in advance; for more women; AV system) – not to mention Ed Balls’ mistimed jokes, met with flapping hands from Ellie Gellard in the front row – audience members with a little more blood lust were wondering where those questions aimed to stump our candidates were going to come from.

The best we got was a question from the audience on what measure the candidates wish they could delete from Labour’s past, which worryingly turned out to be the question all candidates had some of their finest moments with (with the exception of, again, David Miliband, who was clearly keen on being the voice of the past, New Labour legacy intact).

It was Andy Burnham, and not Dianne Abbott, who played the divider tonight, to the surprise of many people I have spoken to. He was the one laying himself open and making friends and enemies along the way, whether on the clergy in the Lords (which he opposes, but will explain his reasons in confession for, by his own jesty admission), to selection in schools to his own class and upbringing in Manchester.

Abbott was playing it far more pluralistic than many had anticipated, being personable and less antagonistic than many would hope (leaving that space for Burham).

Ed Balls was barely clear all evening, most comfortable when he was talking absolute jibberish and complaining about criticism he has had to endure as Minister. His attempts to re-write his past support for the war in Iraq, which he now admits was a mistake, were badly executed when he told the audience: “we should say sorry and move on” – if only life were so easy. These are not the words of a man in touch.

This leaves me to talk about the candidate who won the debate hands down tonight. Ed Miliband wanted to drive home the message that he was a “values driven” candidate, calling for Lords reform, a 50% female shadow cabinet, a need to govern markets by democracy, a look at top pay in the private sector, a high pay commission, a living wage, and the need to criticise capitalism from a democratic perspective.

Emma Burnell asked the pivtal question at the end of the night: “are you a Socialist – and what does the word mean to you?” David Miliband of course skirted round the issue, saying he was happy to accept what is written on the back of Labour membership cards (democratic socialist), while the others used the word to explain why they opposed social barriers. Ed Miliband used the most colourful language when he noted that:

Being a socialist for me is about being willing to criticise capitalism – and saying capitalism produces many injustices, which politics must tackle. It is not about abolishing capitalism but it is about changing it.

Balls noted having no truck with barriers, Burnham quoted Billy Bragg and Abbott spoke about the marginalisation of the minority working class.

These events are about Labour members and supporters working out who comes off best. Small-scale differences aside, the candidate scores points by saying the things you want to hear, appearing to mean it, and manoeuvering better on the spot than others. For me, Ed Miliband did this the best, not necessarily because I feel his politics are closer to mine than that of any other candidate, nor because I desire for him to be the next leader of the Labour party, but because he spoke clearly and elegantly about important matters, rallied with passion about more than just things we might want to hear him say, and did this far better than any of his colleagues.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.