Labour’s first leadership party hustings – snap verdict

Sienna Rodgers

Rebecca Long-Bailey had a fantastic launch on Friday evening. Addressing a crowd of Labour supporters in a Manchester museum, she came across as confident, relaxed and genuinely funny. It was a slick event, with screens everywhere promoting her logo and “#RLB2020” branding. Her team members were pleased with how it went, and had good reason to be.

Fast-forward to the hustings in Liverpool today, and the Shadow Business Secretary was more muted. She again quipped that she learnt her politics in a pawn shop – “that’s P.A.W.N.” – but found no more opportunities to show off her personality. Instead, she pushed the key message that has emerged from her campaign: to sell its politics, Labour needs to talk about a democratised economy and “aspirational socialist government”.

With a 40-second limit for answers, Long-Bailey didn’t have the space to elaborate on that idea. She would have benefited from reiterating other lines aired last night, such as: “My kind of socialism is the kind where we all rise together… where we’re free to dream, free to climb and free to succeed.”

Keir Starmer also repeated lines from his launch, in particular the careful balancing act that he now calls his “rules”: “Don’t trash the last labour government.” and “Don’t trash the last four years.” It’s a transparent pitch to all wings of the party, but it is effective – many active members are weary from the factional battles of the last few years and appreciate the clear call for unity.

He failed to move the dial in any meaningful sense, however. His biggest round of applause followed a promise not to give an interview to The Sun, which was a decent line but said nothing about where he’s going next in the contest. Starmer reiterated that his test for whether Labour had tackled antisemitism would be whether everyone who left the party over that issue felt comfortable to return. This seems to be setting the bar inexplicably high.

Emily Thornberry gave the debate admirable welly. Gaining confidence throughout the hustings, she was clear and passionate. She came across as sincere, which is helpful – our recent poll showed a surprisingly low level of familiarity with the Shadow Foreign Secretary and her policy platform considering her high profile. It suggested that people were uncertain as to where she stood after appearing loyal to the leadership but quickly attacking it post-election.

Jess Phillips was the most critical of other candidates. The Birmingham MP implicitly attacked Long-Bailey’s constitutional reform-focussed pitch when she said nobody in real life talks about “this senate or that senate”. She also tacitly accused the frontbenchers in the race of not being sufficiently vocal about tackling antisemitism. Going negative may be straight-talking, but it seems inadvisable at this very early stage of the campaign.

The feedback in the room from audience members was mostly disappointment in the frontrunners, and pleasant surprise when it came to Lisa Nandy. She seemed to impress the most. The Wigan MP was articulate and calm, hitting her key points such as the “red bridge” rather than the ‘red wall’, and she swerved the question of which policy was most difficult to sell on the doorstep. A couple of weeks ago, she said it was free broadband – this time, it was: “I struggled to sell the package”. It was a good day for Nandy and Thornberry, less so for the rest, who gave decent performances but didn’t do enough to shine.

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