The Country or the Party? Labour's Leadership Debate Gets Interesting

24 Jun 2015

 

The Labour Party leadership debate, broadcast last Wednesday, wasn't quite the affair of the general elections seven-way extravaganza. Yet in many ways this was an improvement. Whereas then we had the spectacle of speakers with different ideologies shouting over one another, such as when Plaid Cymru's Leanne Wood justly laird into UKIP's Nigel Farage for his inflammatory comments about migrants with HIV/AIDS. This time was certainly sedate by comparison with few moments where one candidate could claim they levelled a blow against another. So how did each of the four candidates fare? Was there a clear winner? Yes and no.

 Liz Kendall's declaration of "The country comes first." in retort to Andy Burnham's confirmation that "The party comes first, always." when discussing the possibility of a further leadership challenge for the victory a few years down the line, was perhaps the most significant. It can be expected that Kendall's supporters will refer to this soundbite regularly throughout the campaign. Camp Kendall however would be mistaken to thing she shone in this debate, she stumbled with questions and struggled to define herself as anything other than a candidate of change. When one looks at the change she offers it is striking that mid-way she appeared to be defending current chancellor of the exchequer: George Osborne's plans to introduce into law a requirement for governments to run a surplus. Even going as far as to correct the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg on the details of the policy. For most labour voters that could severely sour Kendall's chances.

Whilst to many viewers Jeremy Corbyn was the most popular with his blistering defence of immigration to a member the audience he risks coming across as dismissive of people's concerns. If Labour is to regain the votes that were lost to UKIP in May it needs to address these fears about immigration and engage in a real debate that could be uncomfortable for many on the metropolitan and liberal left of the party.

Andy Burnham, the bookies favourite was charming and every part the polished performer. Yet this should've been an easier evening for him, he can speak with authority about, arguably the most important issue in the minds of anyone who does or is tempted to vote labour: the NHS. Yet despite this he seemed to struggle to defend himself from Liz Kendall's attacks and interruptions and running over time in an opening statement that was mostly about himself did little to endear himself to the largely skeptical audience.

At the start of this piece I posed the question "Was there a clear winner?", to which I gave an ambiguous answer. This is because a clear win in a debate should be a game-changing event, it should give a candidate a strong enough boost to propel them into first place. This is much more difficult to achieve when your opponents are all singing from the same hymn sheet. There was no game-changing victory here but there was a victor.

Yvette Cooper performed far better than her opponents at this first hurdle. She is a practiced and efficient performer in debates with her political opponents at Westminster and this came across over the evening. Whilst some have criticised Yvette's campaign for being unable to define itself they should probably shelve that line from now on. Here was the working mother from Scotland and MP for a North of England seat. Her strongest moments were when she spoke openly to the audience about their concerns, she spoke movingly of the time she had to spend a year out of work due to illness and even cut the fine line between making eye contact with the cameras and with the audience.

Yvette Cooper was the strongest candidate and the victor of the debate, but it won't have changed much. Very few party members will have made a decision from this debate, but I made up mine. I'm backing Yvette Cooper for the Labour leadership and if you're a party member (or thinking of joining) I'd strongly recommend that you do too.

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