The Smith vs Corbyn debate showed a Labour Party talking to itself and a long way from power

The Smith vs Corbyn debate showed a Labour Party talking to itself and a long way from power

Keiran Pedley gives his snap judgement on this evening’s Labour leadership debate.

Assuming that you think Jeremy Corbyn’s reelection as Labour leader is not already a foregone conclusion, tonight’s leadership debate was a good opportunity to see the candidates in action. Owen Smith, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the more polished performer but Jeremy Corbyn had the room. A striking factor in this evening’s debate was the constant heckling and interruptions from the audience – mostly aimed at Owen Smith – which didn’t exactly leave you with much confidence that the party can unite when the winner is announced in September.

Each candidate’s pitch was as expected. Smith claimed he could win a General Election and said he was just as radical as Corbyn (‘I fundamentally agree with Jeremy’ being a common refrain). Corbyn claimed that Labour was winning under him and said that the party could not afford to go back to the ‘austerity-lite’ policies of the past. We heard a lot of what we might expect and the audience wasn’t shy in expressing its opinion too.

Pitching to the party

Labour’s divisions and the pitches from the candidates were not what struck me the most watching Corbyn and Smith tonight. What struck me the most was just how much both candidates were pitching to the Labour membership and not the country. I will concede that this is perhaps inevitable in a party leadership contest like this one. The Labour membership – many of whom joined in the past year to explicitly support Corbyn – is significantly to the left of the average British voter. The membership is also very much in control of the Labour Party right now given that a no confidence vote in a Labour leader from MPs is non-binding. Therefore, anyone seeking to beat Corbyn among this electorate has to pitch to the left. I get that. That is Owen Smith’s challenge. Perhaps it is just smart politics for him to present himself as the ‘acceptable face of Corbynism’ to win over Labour members.

A long way from power

However, what this means in policy terms is we end up with a Labour Party saying things that the membership likes but probably won’t move the party any closer to power. On the economy and public spending  tonight we got hundreds of billions of spending commitments based on borrowing and taxing the rich. On the 2015 General Election defeat we were told Ed Miliband was too timid. On immigration, there were lukewarm acknowledgements that there was an issue but no commitment on numbers. We did get disagreement on Trident but the membership in the room was clear which direction party policy should go and it was in the opposite direction to public opinion once again. There was some good stuff in there but this was very much a policy platform for Labour members. The country could wait.

All of this is fine to an extent. If the Labour Party wants to adopt a strong and unashamedly leftist platform at the next General Election then it can. However, there was a clear and noticeable absence of any soul searching tonight. An absence of any real understanding of why Scotland was lost or why vast numbers of Labour supporters voted Leave in June. There was certainly an absence of any realistic strategy for winning over Tory voters too. Any challenge or problem could be solved by being ‘a bit more Labour’. It worked well in the room but we should be sceptical it will work in the country. The answers to Labour’s problems from the candidates were too easy and when the answers are too easy they are probably wrong.

Prepare for Tory dominance

All of this leaves me with the reinforced view that the Tories are now in power for the foreseeable future. The next decade at least. Of course events can take place that shift the narrative but Labour waits in hope not expectation. It is worth reminding ourselves where we are. Back in the real world the Conservatives lead Labour bydouble digits in most polls when Labour led under Miliband at this point in the last parliament. The public typically prefer May to Corbyn as PM by a margin of 3:1 and the combined vote share of the Tories and UKIP in opinion polls consistently clears 50%. The country has just voted for Brexit and it is not clear if opinion polls have corrected their usual anti-Tory bias so Labour’s ‘real position’ could be even worse come election day.

Looking ahead for Labour, it perhaps won’t surprise anyone familiar with my work that I think Owen Smith is a far better long term solution to the party’s problems than Jeremy Corbyn. He was impressive in parts tonight. But even if Smith wins, Labour members will expect him to deliver to a platform far to the left of one that history tells us will win the country. The Tories, led by May, will unleash the old attacks of ‘Labour tax bombshells’ and they will win. Maybe a victorious Smith tacks to the centre but it will be difficult with the membership he has and the promises he has made. To some extent he has already boxed himself in.

However, the likelihood is that Smith won’t win anyway. Corbyn will prevail and lead Labour to a crushing defeat when the next election comes. It will then be left to one of his supporters – perhaps Lisa Nandy – to pick up the pieces and lead Labour slowly back to electability. Perhaps the lesson from tonight was that Labour members are almost too important in the debate over the party’s future. It certainly wasn’t that Labour is on course for power any time soon.

Keiran Pedley presents the PB/Polling Matters podcast and tweets about public opinion and politics at @keiranpedley

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