Labour's leadership candidates were grilled by Newsnight’s Katie Razzall last night. Avuncular Sir Keir Starmer, with his greying thatch and bulky frame, looked like a body-builder gone to seed. He spoke in a bluff, commandeering tone that suggested the leadership is his already – and he knows it.
His main rival, Rebecca Long-Bailey, seemed ill at ease. She’s an odd blend of qualities. She might have been named after a Jilly Cooper character but she has a Maoist habit of calling the voters ‘our communities.’ Her complexion is immaculate, her gaze unblinking, her blond hair perfect. ‘Pitiless’ is the only word for her dark, angular spectacles. She recently blundered by deploying the phrase ‘progressive patriotism’ which sounds nice but means nothing. This weakness still affects her. Asked to summarise her pitch to the voters, she said:
‘What we need is an aspirational, transformative plan that invests in our regions and nations alongside a real and robust industrial strategy’.
That could mean anything. Razzall asked why Labour were defeated.
‘It was a Brexit election,’ said Emily Thornberry, ‘We gave it to them. I wrote to Jeremy Corbyn and said we shouldn’t have a general election.’
Sir Keir blamed an excess of confidence that ‘we could repeat what happened in 2017.’
Long-Bailey identified a lack of trust over Brexit. Sensing a fight, Razzall stirred the pot:
‘Keir was the architect of your policy,’ she said. ‘Do you blame him?’
‘It was agreed by the shadow cabinet!’ yelped Sir Keir before Long-Bailey could reply.
Blame-dodging was the evening’s main activity. The topic of anti-Semitism prompted a scramble for the high ground. Thornberry expressed her ‘gladness’ that anti-Semites are being kicked out of the party, ‘but why didn’t we do it two-and-a-half years ago?’
Nandy trumped that. ‘I broke collective responsibility over anti-Semitism in shadow cabinet because not to have done so would have made me complicit.’
This implied a rebuke to Sir Keir who swung back:
‘The idea that we haven’t spoken out is not actually accurate so we just need to correct the record there.’
Thornberry rushed to his aid:
‘In shadow cabinet Keir and I would regularly, the two of us, call for regular reports [about anti-Semitism] …. I don’t think Rebecca did but Keir and I did, regularly.’
‘I did. I think you’ll find,’ said Long-Bailey.
‘Sorry,’ said Thornberry with a murderous smile, ‘I don’t remember.’
Job done. She’d slotted Long-Bailey. Sir Keir was quick to gloat.
‘Let’s not descend into scoring points,’ he said.
‘Yeah, yeah,’ agreed Thornberry, her post as shadow foreign secretary secure.
Razzall moved on to Labour’s next manifesto. What would be in it?.
Sir Keir led the way. ‘Tax,’ he said, and the others fell into line. Labour's priority will be more cash for the government and less for the governed. It was like the tax Olympics. Swifter, higher, stronger. Sir Keir enthused about extra taxes for top earners, a larger deduction from Amazon’s profits and tougher action against evaders. ‘I don’t think that’s controversial,’ he beamed.
Nandy announced that ‘tax is a good thing’ and listed her favourite varieties of this universal blessing:
‘Taxing assets, bringing wealth taxes into line with income tax. A mansion tax, a land-value tax are all things the next Labour government should do.’
Thornberry said that lives would be saved by a 50p rate on incomes over £100k:
‘So we don’t have people bleeding to death in Accident and Emergency.’
None of them seemed aware that tax-hiking parties seldom win elections. On the topic of migration, Razzall went head-to-head with Sir Keir:
‘Four years ago, in this studio, you said to Andrew Marr that immigration should be reduced.’
Sir Keir replied with a nifty piece of footwork: ‘Let’s put this in the context of our dividing lines. Boris Johnson wants a hostile environment. I would want a welcoming environment. And now let’s talk about human beings.’
He quoted ‘a woman two beds down’ from his mother-in-law in hospital who had been treated by staff from 44 countries. What a stroke of luck. Sir Keir has found the only patient in the NHS who checks the birthplace of every carer on the ward and keeps a tally on a bedside chalk-board. Let’s hope he’s equally lucky with the electorate. It was a good night for him, not least because RBL failed to shine. The other two gave unspectacular, steady-Eddie performances.
The real victor was Katie Razzall . She ruled quietly, listened intently, quizzed tersely and skewered delicately. A text-book performance.