LONDON (Labour Buzz) - With voting now well underway, the three leadership candidates took to the stage for the Sky News Hustings on Thursday night. Sophie Ridge was hosting with an audience of the most passionate, sometimes angry voters Sky’s producers could lay their hands on.
Blairite or Corbynite
There was a lot of looking back in this debate and in the background were two very different ghosts of Christmas past, Jeremy Corbyn and Tony Blair.
A number of questioners seemed desperate for a return to the centre. Jenny Gale from Dewsbury, for example, wanted to know why they had distanced themselves from the only leader in the last gazillion years to win an election.
Nandy claimed she hadn’t distanced herself from anyone and claimed that it was only after admitting what the party got wrong that it could start talking about the things it got right. She trod the usual line of talking about the minimum wage and the world’s first climate change act while admitting that there was plenty which did go wrong. She said it had been a profound relief after 2015 when the party stopped being the kind which put ‘controls on immigration’ on mugs.
Rebecca Long Bailey, meanwhile, was pressed on whether she thought Tony Blair was a good leader, eventually agreeing he had. She admitted that any Labour leader who won an election is a good leader but argued the party shouldn’t look back to Blair because today’s challenges are a whole lot different, proudly declaring that Corbynisn doesn’t exist, one would assume the same must be true of Blairism.
Starmer, who seems complacent, determined not to put a foot wrong and just play it safe defended both former leaders, urging the party not to trash Corbyn’s leadership because of his strong message on austerity and that, despite getting it badly wrong on Iraq, there were ‘many other good things done’ under Blair.
Labour always finds itself quizzed more closely on the economy and that was the same last night. Long Bailey said she wouldn’t drop any of Corbyn’s economic policies, although she did add a few caveats. Ideas such as the four-day week, she said, were an aspiration although they could not have managed it in five years, and this was not made clear to the electorate.
Starmer said the economy isn’t working with nine children out of a class of thirty being in poverty. He argues that people wanted change but didn’t trust the Labour Party to bring it about.
Nandy also agreed the policies were popular, but voters had already decided they didn’t trust Labour before the election was called.
There were heated exchanges on anti-Semitism. One audience member attacked Starmer and Long Bailey for staying in the shadow cabinet despite the crisis. Another said the attacks had been invented by right wingers to attack Corbyn and a third said he was considering voting for none of them because they hadn’t done enough to speak up for the ‘99% of members’ who weren’t racist.
Starmer said it was an issue of leadership and would ask for every antisemitism case to land on his desk.
Nandy seemed to try and turn it onto Starmer. Turning to him she said that if Labour didn’t acknowledge how badly it had failed on antisemitism, it would not win back the backing of the Jewish community.
Starmer snapped back that her description of inaction by the shadow cabinet was ‘nonsense’. He also threw a barb in the direction of Long Bailey claiming she didn’t speak out as much as he did.
Long Bailey refused to point fingers but says she did speak up against it in shadow cabinet. “The time for retrospective criticism of each other has gone,” she said, “we are in a crisis.”
If Starmer was nervous about anything it was Brexit. His was the policy which sparked so much anger in the red wall and he’s also sparked more anger by suggesting he’s open to bringing back free movement.
Starmer admitted that Brexit was one of the main reasons why Labour lost and, while he said he would take responsibility for the policy, he thinks the rest of the shadow cabinet should too. Long Bailey went to a common theme with her; that people felt Labour was playing Parliamentary games. The belief that Labour was trying to overturn the result contributed to a lack of trust which spread to other areas.
How to win
Electability is a big part of this election, with many voters choosing the candidate they think will win as much as which one stands for their beliefs.
This plays into Keir Starmer’s big pitch: “how do we get the Labour party from where we are now to where we can win a General election,” he said in his opening statement. Labour, he says, is there to change lives for the better ‘but can’t from opposition.’
For Long Bailey, Labour must listen to voters, especially the ones with Northern accents. They were angry, she says, but ‘no one voted against a better life’.
As a working-class woman, she said, she’d had to work twice as hard to get ahead and promoted her vision of aspirational socialism.
Nandy’s pitch was a little more solemn. This, she said, is the ‘last chance’ to save Labour. If Labour gets this wrong there ‘might be no party to vote for in ten years’ time’.
“I'm asking you to put your trust in me because this may be our last chance... This is the moment to decide whether we have the courage to try,” she said.
A difficult choice
Once again, this debate was notable for just how much the candidates agree with each other. On the economy, on anti-Semitism and even on former leaders, they pretty much walk the same line. This has played havoc with people on Twitter who are desperate to lump people into a left/right divide.
It’s difficult to class Starmer and Nandy as Blairites given that they both protested against his government, and it’s hard to belittle Long Bailey as continuity Corbyn when she describes Tony Blair as a good leader.
The assumption is that the race is all over bar the shouting, but surprises do happen. Even so, whoever wins in April, we have a pretty clear idea which direction the Labour party will take.
(Written by Tom Cropper, edited by Michael O'Sullivan)