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by GK Strategy 8th August, 2016
2 min read

creativity in a crisis

Corbyn and Smith go head-to-head in first Labour Leadership debate

Thursday night saw the first of eight planned debates between Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership challenger Owen Smith. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union acted as a catalyst for disgruntled Labour MPs to challenge Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Labour campaigned for a Remain vote; however, traditional Labour heartlands like Hartlepool and Sunderland voted heavily in favour of Leave. Labour MPs, many dissatisfied with their leader’s role, or lack of, in the campaign, voted for a motion of no confidence in him by 172 votes to 40. With initial polling suggesting that Corbyn maintains his support from the last leadership election – only last summer – there is considerable ground for Smith to make up.

Welshman Smith, on his home territory in Cardiff, landed some blows on the embattled incumbent, jibing that if Corbyn can’t even hold his party together, how could he be expected to hold the country together. This debate was more personal than those of 2015, Corbyn challenging Smith on why he resigned from the Shadow Cabinet, with Smith replying that Corbyn as leader isn’t up to the job.

With most Labour members, rather than wider supporters, supporting Britain’s EU membership, Smith’s attacks on Corbyn’s weak EU referendum campaign performance (he went on a week’s holiday shortly before the vote and refused to co-operate with the official Stronger In campaign) exploited his opponent’s most vulnerable area. Smith’s commitment to a second referendum on the Brexit deal was a clear dividing line, with Corbyn insisting the result of the June referendum should be respected. Corbyn defended his role in the campaign and his public commitment to a Remain vote, but his past support for leaving the EU caught up with him, one heckler shouting “what’s the point in saying it if you don’t believe it?” The Brexit attacks clearly rattled Corbyn, who angrily waggled his finger back at Smith exclaiming “let’s make the best of it”.

The debate helped to flesh out some noteworthy policy positions held by the two candidates, with Corbyn expressing his support for solar feed-in tariffs and an expansion of apprentices, but his sporadic references to different policy areas within the same sentence showed flawed communication. In addition, policy details were lacking, the word “investment” was repeated frequently, without details of how specifically money would be spent, and Corbyn’s reference to pursuing a “large housing programme” had no reference to what such a programme would actually consist of. Smith for his part committed to all-women shortlists and a 50:50 parliamentary party and Shadow Cabinet (including in the great offices of state – Chancellor, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary).

However despite attacks, in a manner reminiscent of “I agree with Nick” from the 2010 party leaders debates, both candidates were at pains to stress how much they agreed with each other – “Owen’s right”, “Jeremy and I agree” – on public spending, re-industrialisation, the NHS, and this prompted Corbyn to challenge his opponent, “why did you resign?”

Whilst Corbyn stuck to the ideological position that swept him to victory in 2015, Smith was clearly the more charismatic speaker, tapping into the Welsh hwyl oratory style that was a hallmark of former leader Neil Kinnock. However, Smith’s better delivery wasn’t to everyone’s liking, with some on Twitter saying that they were put off by his slicker style. For his part, this was not the Jeremy Corbyn of 2015, the incumbent constantly reading quietly from his script, while Smith turned to his audience as he deployed his oratory flair. Indeed, when challenged by the Chair as to what he would do better to get his message “out there” to the public, a flustered Corbyn simply stated that “we’ll do our best to get our message out there”.

A question about anti-Semitism was the cue for some heated exchanges – despite the Chakrabarti Report (or perhaps we should say the Baroness Chakrabarti Report?), this is an issue the Labour Party has yet to fully come to terms with. Smith’s condemnation of anti-Semitism in “the Labour Party, the Labour Party”, was certainly reminiscent of ‘that speech’ by Kinnock at the 1985 Labour Party Conference in Brighton, as he pledged to ban any members responsible for life, and not just with a suspension. The jeers by some in the audience at the issue being raised suggested that this remains an issue that not everyone is taking seriously within the party’s ranks. For his part, Corbyn retorted that the issue has been used as a political football by moderates in the party.

A clear theme in Smith’s responses was the need for Labour to be able to beat Theresa May’s Conservatives at the ballot box in a General Election. Citing recent opinion polling, showing the Tories having a double-digit lead and suggesting that 2 million Labour voters would prefer a Tory Prime Minister to Jeremy Corbyn, he pressed the need to get Labour into government and not to just be a party of protest. Whilst Corbyn’s remarks that he had “recently read some memoirs of Harold Wilson” might play well with the members, it is unlikely to help him connect with the wider public, nor will his Latin quote of “mea culpa” endear him to the man on the street. However, it is this style that attracts many Labour members. Cheers and jibes were more evident in the incumbent’s favour, but the biggest cheers were for Smith’s insistence on the needs for a Labour Government in Westminster.

Smith showed political nous turning jeers from some parts of the audience to his advantage, pointing to it as an example of the comradely behaviour that has become the norm within the Labour Party under Corbyn’s leadership. Moderates within the Labour Party will be hoping that Smith is as successful as Neil Kinnock was in facing down the Left of the party and emerging victorious from the 1987 leadership challenge that Corbyn played a key role in engineering. With six weeks to go until voting closes on 16th September, Smith will certainly need to turn his opponent’s strengths against him if he is to turn round the contest. The second debate this coming Thursday, in Gateshead, offers him another chance to chip away at Corbyn’s support.

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