Unity, U-turns, and the EU: What we didn’t learn from the first Labour leadership debate

Following the first in a series of Labour leadership hustings, the New Statesman blog published an article detailing the four things we learnt from the debate. In truth we only learnt one thing; that nothing has changed. Jeremy Corbyn remains hugely popular among Labour members and supporters, Owen Smith is yet to convince the same group of his socialist credentials, and the party is still bitterly divided. Held in Cardiff, not far from Smith’s constituency of Pontypridd, the debate covered national issues – such as industrial policy, immigration, and Europe – but focussed mainly on internal party matters. Despite sticking throughout to his message of Corbyn being unelectable and short of detailed policy, Owen Smith failed to make the necessary inroads that could hand him an unlikely victory in September’s election.

When Corbyn was first made Labour leader less than a year ago, his opponents declared that the Islington North MP’s policies were too left-wing to win elections. Thursday’s debate underlined how far things have come. From economic strategy and housing to transport and healthcare, Jeremy and his challenger (a ‘Blairite’ according to some on the party’s left) were in broad agreement. Today, the Labour leader’s internal adversaries focus instead on his supposed incompetence. Answering the first question of the debate, on who Theresa May would rather face in a general election, Corbyn set about defending his record. Highlighting victories in by-elections and mayoral contests, forcing government U-turns, and growing the party membership, Corbyn claimed that Labour’s terrible recent polling was a result of party disunity – caused by the coup against him.

Asked whether the leader needs the support of the PLP, Corbyn hit back by arguing the onus is on MPs to get behind the members’ choice. He pledged to appoint a broad Shadow Cabinet if re-elected and urged his opponents to stop their ‘childish’ behaviour. When Smith made his own calls for party unity he was shouted down by the crowd and asked by Corbyn why he resigned. Thursday’s debate, the first of nine, did not expose the deep division within the Labour party – they have been evident for months if not years – it did, however, lay them bare. Midway through the hustings, the two candidates clashed over Trident; one of few areas of tangible policy difference. Smith, a former CND member, made a passionate case for multilateralism but in the current climate of the party, it inevitably fell on deaf ears.

Corbyn’s ideological consistency is the root of much of his support. He defended his long-held unilateralist stance resolutely but became somewhat unstuck when the debate moved onto the EU. Known to have previously held Eurosceptic views, Corbyn was accused by Smith of not campaigning hard enough for a remain vote in June’s referendum. The challenger then repeated his pledge to hold another referendum once Britain’s exit deal had been negotiated. Though such a move might help Smith’s chances in the leadership election – the vast majority of Labour members backed Remain – it would be a potentially fatal policy for Labour at a general election. Many traditional Labour voters backed Leave and any attempt to backtrack on Brexit could only push more of them the vote UKIP. Corbyn’s policy of begrudgingly accepting the referendum result may actually be more popular with the public.

The European issue has exposed Smith’s lack of political nous, as has the general message of his campaign. Opponents of Corbyn emphasise the need for Labour to win over Tory voters; likewise, Smith will have to convert Corbyn supporters to become leader. His Corbyn-lite stance, illustrated by near constant agreement on policy, is viewed by a majority of Labour members with either distrust or distain. The Pontypridd MP did little to win over Corbynites on Thursday night. On immigration, welfare, and inequality, Smith looked a pale imitation of his leader and offered no inspiring alternative. Faced with entrenched support for his opponent, Smith has declared himself to be ‘just as radical’ but he simply cannot match Corbyn’s integrity or popularity. Arguably, Smith would do better offering something radically different to his opponent. There was no sign of such a move on Thursday night.

The first Labour leadership debate contained no surprises. Jeremy Corbyn still looks set for victory, Owen Smith still has little to offer his opponent’s supporters, and the Labour party is still bitterly divided.

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