Hewitt calls for Labour leadership hustings

Members of the public should be able to grill the candidates for the Labour leadership at hustings around the country, Patricia Hewitt has said.

It would be a “unique opportunity to renew Labour’s dialogue with the public” and ensure the party remained “in touch with people’s concerns”, the health secretary argued in an article for the New Statesman.

Her comments reflect proposals mooted by Labour chairwoman Hazel Blears earlier this week for parliamentary candidates to take part in community hustings. The aim, again, was to improve the party’s relationship – and standing – with the public.

Writing in a separate article for the magazine, leader of the House of Commons Jack Straw said something had to be done to address the widespread lack of trust in the political system.

“We must work for a more authentic, direct, local and visible approach to politics and a reduction in some of the slicker campaigning techniques that have come to dominate the way we do our politics,” he said.

“It is no accident that trust levels shoot up when a politician is a known and active figure in the local community. And they plunge when there is a sense that a politician is speaking from a script.”

Ms Hewitt admitted that last week’s disputes about when Tony Blair would quit were “politics at its worst”, saying: “Factionalism, infighting, poisonous briefings and bitter public attacks – all without a thought for the public who put Labour into government.

“We have damaged ourselves – but we have also deepened public cynicism about politics. That is bad for any democracy, but is especially threatening to progressive politics.”

The announcement by Mr Blair that he would resign within a year, and Gordon Brown’s public support for his prime minister, had “put us back on track”, she said – but Labour urgently needed to re-engage with the public.

“I urge the party to seize this opportunity and create leadership elections that reach out beyond Labour’s individual and affiliated members to the wider public – not just those who will vote in the leadership elections, but those who will vote in the general election,” she said.

She continued: “Imagine a leadership contest that brought together not just members, but people who used to support us or might do so in future, to discuss our country’s response to climate change or social cohesion.

“At hustings across the country, candidates would discuss these issues with people from all sides of the debate, as well as with each other, in person and on the web.

“Such an approach would not only help ensure Labour remains in touch with people’s concerns, but also raise public understanding of the difficult decisions all governments face.”