Last night’s Newsnight Labour leadership hustings in Nuneaton marked the closing of the parliamentary Labour party’s nomination process and fired the starting pistol for the ‘proper campaign’. Generally the format of the programme did not allow for debate or a clash between the candidates to allow them to show their differences – apart from a few standout moments.
Andy Burnham used his opening statement to attack the prime minister and the Tories. As the bookies’ favorite he played it safe and pitched to the party membership. While he made no mistakes, neither did he stand out at any point in the debate. He struggled to stretch beyond his brief of health and the NHS, often falling back on it for examples during the discussion. A broader vision is still to emerge from Burnham on the economy or an analysis of what went wrong for Labour in May.
The shadow health secretary said he wants to take Labour ‘out of the Westminster bubble’ because it has looked ‘like it has been run by an elite, talking in a kind of code for years’. All correct, but the former secretary of state’s anti-establishment pitch is reminiscent of Ed Miliband’s insider-outsider insurgency.
Liz Kendall was the only candidate to clearly pitch to the country and not the party’s membership. She was frank that the party was not taken seriously on the economy or trusted with people’s money. She was also the only candidate to link Labour values to show why the party needs change – ‘We cannot put our values into practice if we do not win’. While her pitch to the country showed the kind of leadership the party needs, will this win her the support of the party?
Yvette Cooper, although making no mistakes needs to do more to dodge the charge of just going through the motions. To her credit, she gave a passionate defence of the welfare state, citing her own experience of being ill for a year and having to ‘claim benefits otherwise [she] wouldn’t have been able to pay the rent’. Pitching herself between Burnham and Kendall, her campaign strategy seems to be to amass second preference votes, not making any noise on the way to doing so. It could be a winning strategy, but it did not yet make her stand out as the confirmed next leader.
Jeremy Corbyn was … Jeremy Corbyn. Nothing he said would have been out of place at a rally of the People’s Assembly or CND – you have to admire his consistency at least. However, he posed more questions than answers, and was the voice of protest from the left. The fact Tories have been plotting to register as supporters of Labour to vote for Corbyn, I think, tells you all you need to know. He did not pull the broader debate to the left, which progressives can take heart in, but had some lines that were real crowd pleasers.
The most telling moment of the evening was at right at the end, and it was worth waiting for. Candidates finished by discussing whether they would stand down if the party was doing badly under their leadership. Of course, Burnham declared, ‘the party always comes first, always’. ‘The country comes first’, Kendall shot back. Fiery moments such as this, along with her response to Philip Hammond on Question Time when he confused her with Rachel Reeves, show that she is unafraid to speak her mind and is more than capable of taking on David Cameron across the dispatch box at prime minster’s questions. Kendall is, as she claimed, ‘the Labour leader that the Tories [will] fear’.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.