Despite being first to make his pitch to the assembled audience it wasn't until about halfway through the debate that I really took any notice of the former health secretary. For too long it seemed like he was simply an ambitious backbencher who had stumbled into the big-boys group, only to be quickly shouldered out to the edge of the crowd. He distanced himself from the others with the strongest defence of the Iraq war and a defence of New Labour's stance on civil liberties, but he was singing off last week's hymn sheet. He lacked dynamism and verve and stands a long way from making an impact on the leadership contest, let alone the post itself.
Before Gordon Brown was even making the humiliating last walk away from Downing Street and into political obscurity, I held a personal fancy for the younger of the Miliband brothers to be his successor. This was mainly due to his exposure as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, and his performance last night, though not clinical, is yet to shake me off the scent. His diagnosis of Labour's failure as being seen as the 'managers and technocrats of society' was acute and he was also clear in his support for the 50p tax rate for the highest earners remaining permanent. Presentation wise he was slightly suspect- each point he was made propelled toward the viewer with the force of some particularly violent hand gesticulations- and I can understand him being seen as not 'heavyweight' enough for the job. But if I had a vote in the leadership election- which I don't- it would be going his way.
I'm glad that Diane Abbott made it onto the ballot, and with some murmurings of her making a surprise surge in the race, last night will certainly have gee'd the horses up. Abbott took her presentational lead from Nick Clegg's performance in the first election debate, taking full advantage of her central position, and speaking directly down the camera. At one point, with a growing racket of the other four candidates speaking over each other, she cut through to make her point in an almost stunned silence, like a diminutive teacher asserting her authority over a group of rowdy, testosterone-filled teenagers. The substance matched the style as she put forward both her positions and her differences from the other candidates strongly, no more so than in her criticism of Labour's record on civil liberties towards the end. This provided a good ending to the night that she completed with her choice of John Smith as the Labour leader she most admired. All in all it was a good evening for Labour's left-field, left-wing candidate.
David Miliband is favourite to be the next Labour Leader and last night you could see why. He comes across as the most statesmanlike and provided solid, though not exactly inspiring, responses to the questions posed. At times the camera was searching for him but at one point towards the end, having landed on the senior Miliband blurred, the shot gradually came into focus. This seems to mirror Miliband's campaign as he has gradually shrugged off the criticisms of his failure to challenge Gordon Brown for the leadership, to become the clear frontrunner. Though I prefer Ed, I can't deny that David Miliband would make an effective leader of the Labour party.
Ed Balls was the most willing of the candidates to address the reasons why Labour lost the 2010 general election and for that he must be commended. However, he seems to think that Labour lost because they did not listen to people like Mrs Duffy, nor speak their language. The former is a fair point, the latter a farce. Labour should not be speaking the language of Mrs Duffy, but listening to people like her and telling her why their approach is better nationally. Balls performed better than I expected, but came across as the most reactionary of the five and, in my opinion, the least principled. Though I am not a fan, I can understand the benefits of having Ed Balls in a front bench position. But leader, no.
Whilst the debate was engaging and informative there was too little mention of the deficit. The coalition will attempt to justify all measures they take in this parliament with reference to the more than shoddy condition the nation's finances were in when they took the reigns. Any Labour leader must be able to defend, to an extent, why the deficit is so large, and how they intend to cut it. They must win back the trust of the British people in the Labour party's handling of the economy. For Labour to choose a leader without proper reference to these issues would be like choosing the winner of a football game with no reference to who scored the most goals.