Last night was the first hustings with the confirmed leadership candidates. Filmed for Newsnight in Nuneaton, it was the first chance to see how they would perform on television and with a less party oriented audience. The audience included people who were open to voting Labour but either did not last time or did not identify as Labour voters.
What became clear last night was not so much the policy differences between the candidates but what their pitches are and how they want to see the debate framed.
Jeremy Corbyn never really talked about what he would do as Labour leader, but about how the party had to change. His is not a candidacy about leadership but about changing the terms of the debate. While I remain sympathetic to a lot of what Corbyn has to say, particularly on the long term disastrous effects of the Iraq war – on the region, to British politics and to the Labour party in particular – I do not believe that by 2020 this is still the fight the Labour party should be having with itself.
Andy Burnham started out quite nervously but gathered his pace and confidence over time. His pitch is clearly to the heart of the Labour party and his favourite status reflects the genuine affection that Labour members have for him. His pitch is clearly that he is not of the Westminster bubble. Despite having been in the political field all his adult life, Burnham does clearly have that sense of separation from the rest of the special adviser class that is felt both by him and by those in the party who champion him. He is a genuine bloke with a passion that are obvious, straightforward and refreshing. But to lead the country as well as the party he will need to expand his pitch to beyond the party’s comfort zone.
In many ways Liz Kendall has the opposite challenge. Her pitch is very much as the candidate who is ok with making the party uncomfortable as she tries to reconcile it with why it lost the election and pitch to the centre-ground of the country. She got in the best line of the night, at Andy’s expense, with unscripted line, ‘The country comes first’ after Andy had responded that the party comes first when agreeing that if his leadership were judged to be failing, he would step down. This happy accident crystallised her pitch as the candidate willing to challenge the party with some hard truths. But it, and the Vine her team rushed out afterwards were not without controversy, with some feeling it was a direct attack on Burnham of the type previously complained about when they were rumoured to be coming in the other direction. For me, I think this criticism is unfair. The line was clearly meant to exemplify this pitch to the country, not to attack another candidate. However, the reaction shows significant distrust of Kendall in some quarters. Whether this is online noise or something deeper – Liz will need to make sure she angles more of her pitch to party members, her current electorate, or she will not get the chance to take it to the country.
In many ways Yvette Cooper had the best and most consistent performance of the night. Her pitch is clearly about being the most experienced candidate and her lack of nerves and strong steady performance showed this very clearly. Her carefully nuanced and highly personal pitch around both welfare and immigration was extremely good – the line that Labour absolutely has to walk between refusing the rhetoric and keeping voters onside. If what Labour wants is a safe pair of hands, last night she proved she is absolutely that. So far she has been criticised for not defining her candidacy enough. Her personable performance showed why that may – in fact – be her strength. With the campaigns of the other three currently speaking to the poles of the party, a candidate that offers reassurance without divisiveness could be an extremely attractive prospect. Is also likely to do significantly well on second preferences too.
In this contest I remain a neutral party and floating voter. But I am now a more confident one. All three of the leading contenders in this race showed how they could win and why they might deserve to. Their pitches are sufficiently different to give us all much to think about and some hard choices to be made.
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