The four Labour leadership contenders took part in another televised hustings today, this time chaired by Andrew Neil on the Sunday Politics. With just over 50 days left of this contest, the candidates are now more comfortable in each other’s company and seem much happier to attack each other. Although no one spectacularly won or failed, a few moments did provide some insight into the current state of the race. Here are five key points from today’s hustings.
1. Corbyn is comfortable running as the far left candidate.
The rise of Corbynmania has overlooked that he has no frontbench experience and little idea of how to do serious politics. His appearance on the Sunday Politics showed that he is an able politician who can cope well under tough questioning. Although Labour might find comfort in this dalliance beyond political norms, two of his responses crystallise why he would consign the party to be out of power for a generation.
On inviting the IRA to the Houses of Parliament soon after the Brighton bombing in 1984, Neil pointed out to Corbyn that ‘their organisation had just tried to blow up the British government’ and did not he think about that. ‘Of course I thought about it’ Corbyn responded, but insisted he ‘wanted a peace process.’ Whether it was right to invite them, Corbyn posed the question ‘is there anything wrong with that since they had a spent conviction?’
Then, on bringing back the 50p tax rate, Corbyn said he would bring reintroduce it because it would bring in another £5 billion. When asked where that figure came from, Corbyn said it was ‘from research that I’ve had done for me.’ By whom? ‘By very clever people’ — not a recognised financial institution like the OBR or IFS. For a party that has a problem with fiscal credibility, magic numbers from ‘very clever people’ are unlikely to restore confidence in Labour’s ability to manage the economy.
2. Yvette Cooper is improving
In this contest to date, Cooper has come across as wooden and too robotic. She has spoken in clichés about the need to change and fight the Tories without offering many specifics of how she would do that. But Cooper appears to have grasped this criticism and delivered probably her most passionate performance to date. She defended Labour’s financial record, saying ‘we had a small deficit before the financial crisis… debt was in fact really low’. She attacked Liz Kendall on listening too much to the Tories: ‘Where I disagree with Liz is I think she’s making the mistake of thinking that all of the Tory policies, we therefore have to start from there. I don’t think we do.'
She also went for Burnham on his comments about Labour’s spending record. ‘I just think it is wrong to say, as Andy’s done, that we should apologise for public spending on our NHS, on Sure Start, on our public services. That did not cause the financial crisis, and we should take on the Tory myths.’ If she continues to hold her own against the other candidates, while appearing more human and enthusiastic for being leader, victory for Cooper in this contest is a real possibility.
3. The other three candidates are ganging up on Liz Kendall
Liz Kendall came into this contest to speak some hard truths to her party, but the other candidates aren't particularly pleased to hear them. She was completely right to point out that Labour has to ‘convince people who voted Tory to vote for us to win again’, which lead to an attack from Cooper (see above) on listening too much to the Tories. She was the only candidate to say outright it ‘wouldn’t be right’ to have Jeremy Corbyn in her shadow cabinet. When it was put to Burnham that Blairite is now a term of abuse in Labour, he responsed ‘it’s not. Of course not.’. Liz Kendall on the other hand said ‘it sometimes is Andy.’
Kendall summarised her candidacy: ‘I won't stay quiet while some try and turn us into an unelectable party of protest’. But the general impressions continues that the Labour party (as well as the other candidates) do not appear to be particularly interested in what she has to say. Despite the backing of Alistair Darling in the Observer today, some of the fire seems to have gone from Kendall. Her campaign’s greatest concern at the moment must be the prospect of coming in fourth place, if the constituency Labour party nominations are of any indication.
4. Burnham is edging closer to ‘I agree with Jeremy’
One of the biggest challenges for the Burnham camp is to clarify where he is the candidate of Labour's left or centre. At the beginning of this contest, he appeared to making a shift to the right, away from his positions of the last five years. He was brisk on Labour's spending errors on the Sunday Politics debate and distanced himself from Cooper's stance. Burnham previously said that Labour’s 2015 manifesto was the best manifesto he'd ever fought under. Today he described it as ‘too narrow.’
Contrast this with his remarks on offering Corbyn a job in the shadow cabinet. Burnham said ‘if he wants a job, maybe not Shadow Chancellor, on the back of what he’s just said, but I might be open to listening.’ On the topic of housing, Burnham said ‘like Jeremy said, let’s allow councils to build more council homes’. He was also seen to be nodding along with what Corbyn saying at times.
So, is Burnham is genuinely moving more to the left because of Corbyn's success or simply positioning himself for the purpose of this debate? Either way, marrying these two together will be a tricky task if Burnham wins.
5. Nothing has really changed
When this contest started, Andy Burnham was the favourite to win. Despite Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt dropping out and Jeremy Corbyn dropping in, Burnham is still in pole position to succeed Ed Milband. He didn’t put in an especially inspiring performance today but he still remains the most plausible candidate at this point.
While his team are confident that Corbyn is unlikely to win and the Kendall threat appears to be have been neutralised, the biggest concern for Burnham is now Yvette Cooper. If her apparent strategy to win on second preference votes can span across all the candidates, he might be in trouble. Otherwise, the four months of this contest could be described as a waste of time.
UPDATE: The New Statesman's Stephen Bush tweets that Burnham's comments about giving Corbyn a job were a joke:
Burnham aide: "Andy was joking." Can't "envisage any circumstances" where Jeremy Corbyn would be on his frontbench.
— Stephen Bush (@stephenkb) July 19, 2015