At the beginning of the year Lisa Nandy became the first Labour leadership candidate to subject herself to a grilling by Andrew Neil. It took almost two months, but this evening the two other candidates left in the race, Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey, finally appeared on the show as well. And while both survived the encounter, neither particularly impressed.
Keir Starmer appeared to have trouble defining his political relationship with Jeremy Corbyn. The Holborn and St Pancras MP admitted that Corbyn was a major issue on the doorstep at the last election, but then unconvincingly denied there were any rifts between him and the Labour leader over the party’s Brexit policy last year. At one point, Starmer even suggested that Corbyn was ‘utterly relaxed’ that his Shadow Brexit Secretary had gone off-script in calling for a second referendum, a month before it became official party policy.
Starmer looked most uncomfortable when asked about donations to his campaign. Unlike the other two candidates left in the race, Starmer has declined to release all his large donations, instead relying on the parliamentary process, which involves a publication delay. His protestations that he was only following the rules agreed at the beginning of the contest seemed especially weak when he was simply asked to name his five biggest donors – and refused to answer. It will do nothing to reassure Labour members who think he has something to hide.
If he is elected Labour leader, one of Keir Starmer’s main tasks will be to win back voters in the North and the Midlands, who left their party in droves at the last election. Starmer made a valiant effort to suggest he was listening to these voters and understood their concerns. But one suspects his claim that Labour voters in the ‘red wall’ are not actually against free movement will leave CCHQ rubbing their hands with glee.
In her interview, Rebecca Long-Bailey’s past came back to haunt her. In an excruciating exchange, the Salford MP was challenged over her claim to have defended the NHS as a lawyer before becoming an MP, when she had mainly worked on brokering disastrous PFI contracts, which are now a massive drain on the health service. Her department at the law firm also oversaw the transfer of millions of NHS assets to a Luxemburg investment vehicle. Long-Bailey claimed this work had revealed to her the ‘insidious’ nature of PFI contracts, but didn’t really explain why she had continued to work at the firm – nor how this constituted ‘defending’ the health service from corporate interests.
The Shadow Business Secretary also came under fire for her lack of action over anti-Semitism. Neil raised a particular meeting Long-Bailey had attended when it was alleged she had not supported the party adopting the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism. Long-Bailey said she couldn’t remember whether she supported the definition during the debate, but insisted she generally tried to speak out against anti-Semitism. That was rather undermined by a video played by Neil, which showed a man saying members of the ‘Israeli lobby’ had prevented Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. Long-Bailey failed to challenge his views at the time. This evening she admitted that she should have ‘called it out’.
Throughout his interview, Keir Starmer stressed the importance of ‘unity’ in the party, especially after the leadership election. But in the end, the only thing that seemed to unite the two candidates was their combined lack of charisma. When Starmer was asked if he had the personality and fire in his belly to bring the party back from its disastrous election result, he rather limply said that it would be a team effort, and he didn’t want to be put on any kind of pedestal. In her final question, Rebecca Long-Bailey was asked if it was the very definition of insanity to elect her, when she was promising to repeat the policies of Jeremy Corbyn that had already led to the party’s defeat. In response, Long-Bailey waffled on about Labour’s fluctuating Brexit position over the last three years. Neither response inspired confidence in the two candidates most likely to take over the party.