Three of the Labour leadership candidates and Jim McMahon took to the stage at the Labour Local Government conference today. Keir Starmer was absent as his mother-in-law is unwell and McMahon stood in for the Camden MP. The hustings was a bit livelier and benefitted from a quick-fire, yes/no answer round, introduced without the prior knowledge of the leadership contenders. The format of the debate did, again, serve to restrict the discussion as the contenders still couldn’t really enter into actual debates – however a few barbs were thrown.
The quick-fire round was illuminating, committing the candidates to some key promises. Should councillors be entitled to membership of the local government pension scheme? Would you argue for more seats on the national executive committee for councillors? Should Labour groups retain the right to elect their leaders? Yes. Complete agreement from all the candidates on every point. And there was a lot of agreement throughout the discussion today, mostly that Labour should champion the work of our Labour local authorities and with each candidate agreeing that our councillors are brilliant.
Emily Thornberry kicked it up a notch on a couple of occasions with challenges aimed at Rebecca Long-Bailey. First, she challenged her on encouraging diversity among the people who stand as our local authority representatives. The Islington MP explained that her borough made sure that they never had a panel of three white men in the selection process. Cutting across the format of the debate, she interrupted to directly ask Long-Bailey whether she thought Labour should be doing this across the country.
Later in the hustings, Thornberry told the room she had to hold several positions at once, adding: “I know some people had to be up late eating pizza. But I tell you I did all of these different jobs all at the same time and supported the leader.” The audience winced – along with Lisa Nandy, who’s face was a picture – at the reference to Long-Bailey having said she was forced to stay up all night re-doing work deleted by a Labour frontbencher who quit during the 2016 coup. Ironically, this came at a point in the hustings when the candidates were discussing Labour infighting, and she had also just told the crowd that she didn’t think criticisms of Labour colleagues should be made publicly. “Ooh, meow! We love each other really. I was working very hard – I will have everybody know. We did have to eat pizza,” Long-Bailey replied. The crowd laughed as she added: “We shouldn’t attack each other publicly under any circumstances.”
Thornberry had a good time of it generally, getting the biggest cheer of the event as she declared that “the days of just being cuddly hopeless lefties have got to be over. It’s got to be over. We can be cuddly we can be lefty but we have to be in power”. A pot-shot at the left. And with her digs at Long-Bailey, this seemed to be her plan for the day. McMahon gave a good account for Starmer and was well received when he committed the candidate to campaign to give councillors pensions once again. Nandy’s key messages throughout were about the culture within the party, saying: “Let’s set the tone and the culture right in this party.”
We got frustratingly little in terms of structural devolution, which the candidates have begun to discuss in the contest. At one point Nandy did take aim aim at Starmer’s emphasis on federalism – she said that it wouldn’t “cut it” as people living in parts of north Wales felt as removed from Cardiff as they do from Westminster. In the previous hustings, she has seemed to be positioning for Starmer’s second preferences. But it’s a shame we didn’t explore this a bit more, and the format is largely to blame for this. Debates are, obviously, interesting when the candidates disagree. And there were some key points where we got to see some differentiation, but the short, rigidly sequential speaking slots with limited opportunity to reply continue to frustrate that.