Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The Last Word: May’s debate jitters

Progress director Richard Angell gives his view on local elections, leaders’ debates, the 1997 anniversary and the risk of the McDonnell amendment by the back door

Deserving praise

The Progress team spent all of polling day yesterday on the doorstep, getting out the Labour vote. We covered nine council wards – walking 10 miles each – with candidates and campaigners from across the party, including Corbynite council hopefuls and first-time canvassers. On election day everyone just pulls together to work for Labour.

As today’s results come in, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the candidates who have spent the last weeks working away for the Labour party trying to defy the polls and with no headwind from the leadership. In many places across the country, knocking on doors with a Labour rosette is unforgiving. They deserve our thanks for stepping up and being Labour candidates at a time like this – and we should all condemn efforts from the top to shift the blame onto them.


The prime minister has called an early election, and the least Theresa May can do is turn up for the debate. It is pathetic that she will not take part in any televised debates and reflects badly on her. The public may not punish her for it at the ballot box but it will be a proof point for a future leadership that she was too scared to put her hard Brexit vision to the country. In addition, it gives the remaining 27 members of the European Union the ability to ask exactly what does she have a mandate for in these negations. It does not strengthen her position; it shows she believes she has a poor hand.

The live televised debate is the best opportunity to expose this. I applaud ITV for going ahead regardless and being prepared to empty chair those who do not turn up.

It is important, however, that Jeremy Corbyn does not subject himself to be the punching bag for the smaller parties. It is the prime minister he should meet in a debate, not the ragbag of smaller parties trying to break Labour’s electoral coalition. Corbyn’s key plan is to be anti-establishment candidate, a ‘challengers’ debate’ would undermine that – as I pointed out in my recent LabourList article.

Currently, the leader’s office and I are on the same page on this. Long may it continue.

20th anniversary – things did get better

‘If we had the courage to change, we could win’ said Tony Blair as the result of the 1997 general election became clear and he arrived at the Southbank Centre to greet an adoring crowd. 20 years ago, the country woke up to a Labour government. Many people my age will have a similar memory to me: my teachers were over the moon! Even in one of the few seats that had stayed Tory.

That victory was a long time coming but it was not ‘inevitable’. While the public had tired of the Tories, the 1992 general election shows Labour could never win the country be default. It must be good enough to win and the Tories bad enough to lose.

There could not be a bigger contrast between the Labour party now and then. Labour commanded a poll lead, the policy was comprehensive, costed and worked through. The policies announced in the short campaign reinforced our wider message and address big societal problems – youth unemployment, crime, both class sizes and numeracy and literacy – they were not gimmicks. The self imposted straight jacket of keeping to Tory spending plans meant the party had to be disciplined and creative. In 1992, a less stringent version had been tried: ‘if resources allow’ was how every spending commitment was caveated. The Tories, through an ad campaign, and then the voters in the ballot box, punished us harshly. Now it seems we cannot spend money (we do not have and will have to borrow) quick enough.

The Tory attack of ‘Labour has already committed that spending’ may be a lie, but for too many voters it rings true. In 1997 Labour activity avoided the ‘tax bombshell’ accusation; now we court it. Bizarre.

Don’t let the McDonnell amendment through the back door

While some in Momentum are planning the post election replacement of Corbyn with John McDonnell or the like, the rest of us are out on the Labour doorstep tying to return hard working members of parliament that should not pay the price for the leadership’s failed experiment.

As the results come through today it shows the Tories are on course for a landslide.

Policy Network has research out this week on what losing Labour MPs does for the hard-left’s chance to get a post-Corbyn candidate on the ballot. John Rentoul’s recent column did something similar and is a must read.

Join us in Cardiff tomorrow or in the East Midlands next Saturday for our three seas challenges to help Labour MPs. Everyone is welcome, people are encouraged to bring a friend and if you are a first timer – training is provided. It is actually very fun.


Richard Angell is director of Progress. He tweets at @RichardAngell

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Richard Angell

is director of Progress

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