The Fabian Society hosted a hustings for the Labour leadership this afternoon, featuring all five of the declared candidates: Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh and Jeremy Corbyn. Following the Progress event a few weeks ago, this is the second time four of these candidates have appeared onstage together — Corbyn only entered the race a few days ago. Fabian supporters tend to be well disposed towards Ed Miliband so unsurprisingly, the reactions favoured the more left wing sentiments.
As the current favourite to win, Andy Burnham has the highest expectations to meet and his turn today suggests he remains the firm favourite — especially if the line for selfies is anything to judge by. But he appears to be gradually becoming the continuity Miliband candidate. He gave an impassioned defence of comprehensive education — arguing it should be ‘as vital to Labour’s DNA as the NHS’ — which resulted in many cheers. Clearly, he is not a fan of Tony Blair's academies revolution. On the future of socialism, Burnham said it's 'certainly not' dead and 'it's needed now more than ever.' Despite some news reports, he denied that he was in favour of a separate Scottish Labour party.
Yvette Cooper, who has so far failed to outline what she stands for, put in her best performance to date. Similarly to Burnham, she criticised free schools and backed up a pre-released statement, in which Cooper said Labour needs to have ‘firm rules about work and welfare and more compulsory jobs’. She did have one faux pas — Cooper said she was in favour of a graduate tax and has been against tuition fees since 1999, despite serving on the Labour front bench when they were introduced.
Liz Kendall also put in a strong performance, distancing herself from the others and confirming that she is the most reformist candidate. Unlike the others, she was willing to dispense some hard truths about Labour's situation. She disagreed with Cooper on tuition fees, arguing that focusing on early years would be her top priority. Kendall also clashed with Burnham over his positon that Labour should fight the EU referendum separately from the Tories, arguing that Labour should be part of a wider ‘In’ campaign with other parties. On the topic of socialism, Kendall said that it’s not dead but ‘needs to change’. Although this may not seem particularly controversial, it did not to go down too well with the Fabian crowd.
— Sebastian Payne (@SebastianEPayne) June 6, 2015
Mary Creagh’s turn showed why she is struggling to get enough nominations from MPs to make it on to the ballot paper. Her ideas were not distinctly different from the others, while she produced some appalling clichés. On immigration, Creagh said Ukip and the Tories are ‘two horns on the same goat’. She argued that Labour is ‘an analogue party in a digital age’ (a phrase David Cameron once used about Gordon Brown) and needs to become ‘the Carlsberg party - refreshing the parts that other parties cannot reach’.
Jeremy Corbyn was comfortable in his role as the hard left candidate. His positions were caricatures of the old left: he argued that the last Labour government didn’t spend too much, except perhaps on defence. He brought up his strong opposition to the Iraq war and argued for much higher business taxation rates. Corbyn unsurprisingly said socialism is 'alive all over the world' but has mixed views on the EU — describing the treatment of Greece by the European Central Bank as ‘disgraceful’.
If Labour wants to have a crack at winning the 2020 election, it needs to have a hard look at reasons why it lost and certainly not lurch to the left. So far, none of the candidates have offered many concrete ideas on how they would deal with the SNP and Ukip, or tackle the trust deficit that Labour suffers from on the economy. Nothing sensational happened today but slowly, each of the candidates are marking out their positions.