Last night I watched the first Labour leadership candidates’ televised debate – entitled Newsnight- Labour Leaders – on BBC2 at 7.00pm. The reason for doing so was little to do with my rank as a Rust political correspondent, and rather to do with the fact there’s bugger-all worth watching on British television on a Wednesday night these days and I had caught a ‘trailer’ for it whilst watching my local BBC News on BBC1. My curiosity did the rest.
Laura Kuenssberg anchored the show from what looked like a church or church hall in Nuneaton which the BBC had filled with an audience, I should estimate, of about 80% Labour supporters and a rump of former Labour supporters, Tories, ‘Don’t Knows’ and UKippers. Left to right (as we looked at the candidates on the raised stage) were Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn, Liz Kendal and Andy Burnham, all sitting on metal chairs.
It proved a strange, fascinating but oh-so-familiar affair.
None of the candidates scored a home run and none of them had a catastrophic evening either. My sense tells me that Andy Burnham probably had most to lose, being a former minister of note and also the one male in the contest who had a chance of winning, but I was also keen to see just how the others performed.
We kicked off with a 45-second introductory speech by each candidate. Here (for me) Yvette Cooper did best. She spoke without hesitation or repetition for exactly 45 seconds and ‘presented’ well, looking calm and assured.
Kendal was most keen to ‘big up’ her flimsy CV and overcame an initial nervousness to make her case as Labour’s future version of Mrs Thatcher.
Burnham (for me) immediately reverted to type – ham-acting his humbleness (“We didn’t connect with the public, I heard that myself here in Nuneaton …”) but undermined it for me by looking the candidate most resembling a Thunderbirds puppet and consistently uttering ‘Westminster Bubble politico-speak’ by the yard until and unless Kuenssberg interrupted him.
Corbyn was intriguing to behold. A prominent backbencher for thirty years in Parliament but barely known – or indeed dismissed as barking – by the public at large, he at least had the advantage of being exactly what he was – an old-fashioned Labour man with socialist leanings.
When Kuenssberg introduced a question on ‘Whither now for Labour?’, all the other candidates spouted homilies about how, whilst still rooted in Old Labour, they wished to embrace a new vision (whichever theirs individually was) and make sure that Labour won the 2020 General Election.
In contrast, unlike the others, Corbyn wasn’t going to lower himself by ‘playing the political game’ of seeking out and espousing anything – literally, anything at all – that might bring Electoral success after two successive defeats.
Though a couple of dinosaurs spoke from the floor plainly still believing that Labour had lost in 2010 and 2015 because it had tried to be ‘Tory-lite’ and its only chance of winning in future was to ‘return to its roots’, the veteran Corbyn stood out among the candidates because he plainly didn’t care whether Labour won or not.
However, he did know the kind of Britain he wanted and was prepared to campaign for. He outlined his vision – with some degree of logic, I have to say – and gained respect thereby, even from me.
I’ve decided that Corbyn comes from the same mould that produced the late Tony Benn, who fell out of ministerial-contention in about 1975 as a loony-Left ranting preacher but in his long dotage was eventually forgiven and adopted by the British public as a ‘national treasure’.
The format – as ever – was weakened by the fact that the programme was only an hour long and that Kuenssberg had to spend too much of her time trying to mediate the impossible, i.e. balancing the need to cover more topics with allowing each candidate to have their say on the current one under discussion. The trouble is that politicians cannot help themselves – they want to go on talking and talking – and/or respond to what the last person said. They’re their own worst enemies. They all want to ‘protect the weak and vulnerable’, but they all also want to ‘give everyone a chance to better themselves’ and ‘not have austerity’ but equally ‘balance the books’. Political verbiage by the yard. They diminished their own arguments by giving the impression that the viewers were being exposed to a re-run of the worst and least attractive campaigning of last May’s Election.
Kuenssberg did her best but at times was rude to the candidates, almost getting involved herself in the debate. Overall I gave her a pass-mark, but not a 2.1.
Ah well, let’s wait for the next round …