What we learnt about Labour’s leadership race from the Newsnight debate

Sienna Rodgers
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My own local party nomination meeting was held last night and went as expected. One member said Keir Starmer was “so wooden” as to be a “posh kebab”, while others countered that the frontrunner has “gravitas”, the “skills to face the media” and “he looks like he belongs in No 10”. As a representative of a town in the North, Lisa Nandy has “skin in the game”, one of her advocates argued. Emily Thornberry “deals well with interviews and speaking in the Commons”, an undecided said. Rebecca Long-Bailey listened to the electorate on Brexit unlike her rivals, another speaker asserted.

Ultimately, the meeting picked Starmer and Angela Rayner, which came as no surprise – mine is a north London constituency neighbouring Holborn and St Pancras, but also this pairing has been by far the most popular choice among the whopping 580 (of 648) local parties that have cast nominations so far. For a full analysis of these nominations, complete with graphs, check out James McAsh’s piece on LabourList today.

After a quick pint, it was time to get home for the first televised debate of Labour’s leadership election. The BBC Newsnight hustings didn’t provide the stark contrasts that they did in the 2015 race, when the policy platforms of each candidate were plainly distinct from one another. But its format was helpful: rather than have the contenders deliver a 40-second rehearsed answer to every question, the host intervened and shaped a more interesting sit-down conversation.

There were several notable moments. The first, when Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry said they anticipated Labour’s 2019 defeat while Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey denied that they did, actually summarised the overall dynamics of the race pretty well, as I wrote in my instant reaction piece last night. A separate hand-raising exercise later saw all leadership hopefuls back scrapping tuition fees (despite Nandy earlier criticising this very policy), as well as renationalising water and electricity. Not one of them – not even Long-Bailey – vowed to include abolishing private schools, keeping the pension age at 66 or the four-day week in Labour’s next manifesto.

On antisemitism, Long-Bailey said she would expect her deputy – as well as all shadow cabinet members and MPs – to sign the Board of Deputies pledges. This might raise eyebrows among members in the 56 local parties that have backed Long-Bailey and Richard Burgon. And yet, at the same time, the Shadow Business Secretary came under attack by Thornberry, who accused her of not speaking up about antisemitism in the shadow cabinet. “Er, Rebecca did, I think you’ll find,” Long-Bailey interjected. “Sorry, I don’t remember,” Thornberry said, with a smile.

On that subject for Long-Bailey, seemingly contradictory statements on policy for Nandy, trans rights for Emily Thornberry (who later tweeted her support for the pledges, despite telling Newsnight she had a problem with describing Woman’s Place UK as a “hate group”), Keir Starmer’s rivals had difficult moments. And yet he seemed to come away from the debate unscathed. This may intensify the perception that he is dull, and there is certainly something to be said for needing to beat Boris Johnson via charisma and a fearless approach rather than detailed scrutiny. But Labour members have had the early ‘rate Corbyn out of ten’ question stick in their minds. His rivals duly offered numbers, while Starmer refused to answer. This wise response is still being raised in meetings. The first debate will only add to the idea that he is unflappable.

  • Thursday: Victoria Derbyshire leadership debate on BBC Two (now); Jewish Labour Movement leadership hustings (7pm)
  • Friday: CLP/affiliate nomination window closes; Rosena Allin-Khan rally in Putney (7pm); Rebecca Long-Bailey event in Glasgow (8pm)
  • Saturday: Party hustings in Glasgow
  • Sunday: Party hustings in London

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