The field of Labour leadership candidates has been narrowed to three, after Emily Thornberry on Friday failed to reach the threshold of required nominations as she fell short by just two local parties. Her departure will not have a significant effect on the race in terms of her votes transferring to those still in the running, because according to polling – and indeed the nominations – she didn’t have very many supporters.
But she was making an impact on leadership hustings, bringing humour, personality and a willingness to confront rivals. Who can forget the moment she admitted to having “zoned out” on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire? Or when, in response to Rebecca Long-Bailey’s claim to have spoken up about antisemitism in the shadow cabinet, she said “sorry, I don’t remember” with a hugely mischievous smile?
At the London hustings hosted by the Co-operative Party today, Long-Bailey became the leadership hopeful most prepared to stand out from the trio by casting doubt on the other candidacies. She did so without Thornberry’s blunt style, but nonetheless got her message across. In the closing arguments, the Salford MP laid out her pitch: she would not “retreat to centre ground”, nor “look and sound like the establishment”. She was criticising the others, particularly frontrunner Keir Starmer, by implication.
Starmer took an entirely different approach. This week, he has started to praise his competitors. During the Jewish Labour Movement hustings, he made a point of commending Thornberry for being outspoken on antisemitism in shadow cabinet meetings. This afternoon, he attacked nobody – tacitly or otherwise. Starmer paid tribute to Corbyn for boosting membership numbers, acknowledged the work of John McDonnell on regional investment banks, and congratulated Long-Bailey on co-authoring a “very, very good” report on alternative models of ownership.
At the end, Starmer talked about how all of the candidates had offered “positive engagement” today. While Long-Bailey’s implicit criticisms of him are thought to have merit on the Labour left, and she is arguably identifying key weaknesses that could become very important over the next four years, the Starmer method comes across as generous – and, of course, gives the impression that he has already won the contest.
Lisa Nandy is still the most technically skilled debater in these hustings. She offers answers with a particular rhythm and tonal pattern that allow them to stand out. She makes her point clearly, with confidence, and usually provides an interesting example. The Wigan MP often cheekily flips the question on its head or initially gives an unexpected answer that actually turns out not to be unexpected at all. But by then her audience has been given a little prod that enlivens proceedings. It’s very clever.
The pressing question we might ask now: is anyone watching? None of the candidates tweeted a ‘come and watch the hustings’ message with a link, as you might expect. The UK Labour Party put out a tweet, though it said the hustings started at “11.30 pm”. During the event, the party had the livestream as ‘unlisted’ on its YouTube account. That means you would have to specifically go through the party website to watch. It’s no surprise that just 190 people were doing so. That makes around 700, if you add online viewers to a generous approximation of audience members in the room. A total of 0.1% of Labour members – and they aren’t even the only eligible voters in this contest.