Comment: Labour Leadership Debate by Liam David Hopley

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Disclaimer: views presented below are the writers’ own.

Labour Leadership Debate: Initial Reaction:

We went along to this morning’s Labour Leadership Debate in Nottingham. Here’s what we learned from the watching Jeremy Corbyn go head to head with Owen Smith …

In the interests of balance, I’d better mention one or two factors before I begin to tell you about today’s event. Despite my best attempts at balance, you may have noticed (if you’ve read any of my other articles for Label) that I take quite an interest in the Labour Party. I have been a member of the Party for a year now, having joined after the general election defeat in Spring 2015.

I didn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn during last Summer’s Leadership Contest, which isn’t to say that I wasn’t tempted. I wasn’t overly dismayed when he won and was named Leader of the Opposition last September. I have, however, become quite frustrated since then. That’s why I’m not supporting him in this year’s contest.

I’m supporting Owen Smith, but I shan’t bore you with the reasoning behind that decision this week. Obviously my views on the debate will have been skewed by that factor. I was, quite literally, on Owen’s side earlier on. Smith fans were seated in one corner, Corbyn supporters on the other, with a selection of neutrals acting as a buffer in between. The decision to segregate the crowd along these lines undoubtedly contributed to the atmosphere of the discussion which followed.

The discussion was not as friendly as I would have liked. It was great that many audience members got a chance to air their views, but it felt like something of a shouting match at times. We were treated to partisan games of ‘who can clap the loudest?’, snorts of laughter and howls of indignation from both sides.

There was also a little bit of booing, and hecklers aplenty were in attendance. Tempers were every bit as high as they had been in the Summer’s two previous leadership debates. To their credit, both candidates retained their cool for the vast majority of the discussion, which certainly touched on some difficult and sensitive topics.

I’m sure it made great telly, but it didn’t feel in any way like the comradely discussions we saw during the Leadership race last Summer. Anyone who says that the mood within the Party at the moment is not an issue is having a laugh. At a local Labour Party meeting last week, which was one attendee’s first, he remarked that the squabbling which he had seen was unlikely to win over any undecided voters. It’s a sentiment which I can’t help but agree with.

Those who feel that the Party needs new leadership and those who passionately defend the incumbent would agree on one thing: that we need to talk about it all.

One audience member, Heather, remarked during an off air rehearsal that we needed to heed the late Jo Cox MP’s advice that we have far more in common than that which divides us. Her comment received applause from all in attendance and I’m a little disappointed that she didn’t get to say as much whilst the nation was watching.

The debate, at the moment, is turning people off and I can’t help but feel that at times it more closely resembles defamation of people’s personality and principles than political discussion. The fact that the atmosphere within the Party is an issue was another source of agreement for all.

For those who haven’t been following the situation closely, there have been reports of homophobia, misogyny and racism raised throughout the debate. Even if they haven’t directly been affected, it’s making many people feel uncomfortable and both Smith and Corbyn did agree that such abuse can never be tolerated and that the Party needs to be as inclusive as possible.

As a consequence of the contest’s sour tone so far, Francesca (a Loughborough student) raised concerns that she would feel uncomfortable about vocalising her support for Owen Smith at Labour’s upcoming Conference in September. She explained that tensions within the Party are now running so high that she’d be more willing to vocalise her support for Labour at the Conservative Party Conference, despite the tribal rivalry between the two factions.

My own contribution to the debate was far less likely to be seen amongst the headlines on Buzzfeed than Francesca’s. We were told that loads of us would get a chance to contribute but I still don’t think I was fully expecting it when somebody passed me a microphone.

The candidates had just faced a series of quickfire questions, including whether they would serve in the other’s Shadow Cabinet should they lose the contest. Smith said he wouldn’t, as he still had no faith in his rival’s leadership ability. Corbyn began by saying that he would consider it if he was asked, but he thought such a suggestion would be unlikely. Owen Smith then explained that he would be delighted to include the incumbent leader In his team.

I couldn’t help but wonder why Jeremy Corbyn thought his rival would not ask him to serve, especially given that he had set a precedent last year by inviting his three fellow contenders to join his team (though they did not all take him up on his offer). I asked what the rationale behind his suggestion was, and was told that “the question has been answered” since he had now been asked to serve. A few hours later, I can see that I should have followed up the point and pressed for an an answer nonetheless – more journalistic practice is needed, I think!

Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to recognise Ant and Dec when questioned will certainly grab a few headlines. I personally don’t think it should. Knowledge of pop culture a less important quality in a prominent politician than leadership ability and credible policies (though I will say I’d be one member of the group who have concerns in those regards too). The thing is though: whilst it’s not important to me, it could be said to make him appear out of touch, which isn’t a vote winning quality and reflects badly on his already much-maligned media advisers.

Owen Smith also made something of a faux pas by incorrectly recalling the score from the Euro 2016 match between Wales and Belgium. He blamed his failure to recall Belgium’s goal (Wales won 3-1) on the fact that he’d watched the game at the pub and had had a few to celebrate. As a Smith supporter, I saw this as a humorous way to style out his error, though one user on Twitter suggested that he had ‘ladded’ it out.

One question which Corbyn faced was to name three positive achievements made by Tony Blair’s government. Blair’s ideology is often described, in Labour terms, to be the polar opposite of the current leader’s. He credited Blair’s regime with introducing a minimum wage, helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland and bringing in a Human Rights Act. It was nice to see him recognise the achievements of the last Labour Government and his calm manner whilst doing so was a good example of his pleasant character, which I can appreciate despite being opposed to him continuing as Labour Party Leader.

At other times, however, I found Corbyn’s persona to be a little underwhelming. He pointedly refused to ‘play the game’ at times. Whilst Smith rated his role in Labour’s current crisis as a 3 on a scale of 1 to 100, Corbyn refused to do so, despite the irate insistence of two particularly vocal gentlemen sat next to us.

The current Leader also refused to answer as to whether he would rather be a Blairite or a Troskyist. These terms have both been used derogatively of late and refer to specific ideologies: far to the right of the Party in the case of Blairism and so far to the left (Trotskyism) that their proponents can actually be expelled from Labour.

Obviously, Corbyn could see that these questions had been set up to be worthy of headlines. It is, however, the role of Victoria Derbyshire (who did a good job of hosting a rather heated debate, by the way) to ask such questions. Though the media have undoubtedly made his life difficult over the past year, Jeremy surely needs to appreciate that some sections of public would like him to play along a little bit more when put on the spot in this way.

Conversely, some may say that Corbyn’s failures to answer contentious questions like these are a sign of his principle and integrity. These are certainly reasons why many of his supporters have faith in him. Some see Smith’s comparative willingness to play along as an example of how Jeremy is ‘different’ to other politicians. The question, however, will be what the wider public make of a Leader who failed to engage with the media at a similar level to his opponent when given the exact same platform on national television.

A few headlines which I have seen so far this afternoon touch on Owen Smith and the idea that he would be willing to negotiate with ISIS. From what I saw, he explained that when working on the Irish peace process, a resolution was only achieved by involving both unionists and republicans. I believe that he meant to outline that peace in Syria can only be achieved by getting all of the country’s factions ‘around the table’ in the region in a similar manner. He has since explained that any discussions would only take place if so-called Islamic State were to renounce violence and seek a settlement by peaceful means.

Corbyn-supporting journalist Paul Mason suggested that, had Corbyn made such a remark, he would have been castigated widely by the media. I can’t help but agree, and perhaps I am being overly sympathetic to Owen Smith by trying to understand the reasoning behind a comment which Corbyn’s team have labelled ‘hasty’ and ‘ill-considered’.

We heard the same arguments which we usually hear around the UK’s Trident nuclear deterrent. Jeremy Corbyn insisted nuclear weapons are ineffective in addressing threats facing the UK in the 21st century. Smith said he would ‘press the button’ if need be and that security is important to many people in the UK. Corbyn’s point that if the UK were to disarm, others would follow our lead was met by Smith’s rebuttal that this wouldn’t necessarily happen in practice and that we should only get rid of our weapons if other nuclear powered states do so.

Similar ground was also retrodden when it came to Europe. An optimistic questioner asked Jeremy Corbyn to accept culpability for ‘Brexit’ and was unsurprisingly refused. Corbyn insisted that he campaigned hard for a ‘remain’ vote and that environmental protections, workers’ rights and single market access must be maintained if/when we leave the EU. Smith’s response was that the British people are owed a second referendum or general election once the manner of our exit is known, to give voters a second chance to opt to stay in.

The notion of a second referendum led to one audience member suggesting Smith only liked democracy when it suited him and that challenging Corbyn and his mandate from the members (over 60% of whom backed him in last September’s ballot) was undemocratic. The Welshman’s response was that he and other MPs have a mandate from their constituents to provide opposition in Parliament, and that Corbyn’s failure to manage as much was his reason for contesting the leadership. Having watched three hours’ worth of hustings before today’s programme, these discussions are beginning to feel a lot like Groundhog Day.

The session ended with the ‘undecided’ voters deciding if they now felt convinced and wanted to join either side. Having clapped loudly for him throughout, they plumped overwhelmingly to back Jeremy Corbyn at the end of the programme. Perhaps the rest of the Owen Smith camp and I have been wrong all along and Corbyn has the ability to persuade huge crowds with ease. That may well be the case, but I couldn’t help but overhear several people raise doubts about the group’s initial impartiality as we left the venue.

I witnessed a concerning scene on the way out as a particularly angry man got a bit aggressive and called on Jeremy Corbyn to ‘do the honourable thing’ and resign as leader. Whilst I don’t suppose to speak on behalf of all members, I couldn’t help but feel a little ashamed that things have reached this stage.

Emotions are running high, but that doesn’t excuse being unpleasant to one another. We could certainly do ourselves a favour by remembering the Labour Party’s founding document, which says that ‘by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone’

Liam David Hopley

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