Much like pre-general election debates, analysts can usually only read so much into the state of play on the basis of hustings, and so it proved on Sunday morning for the Labour leadership hopefuls.
A recent dramatic up-turn in fortunes for Labour's hard-left candidate Jeremy Corbyn has fuelled speculation that the radical outsider could in fact steal victory. This meant that even those with only a wavering interest in politics swivelled their eyes to the Daily Sunday Politics yesterday.
Corbyn’s rivals, meanwhile, were under intense pressure to perform. Liz Kendall had Labour credentials to prove and a Blairite label to shake, Andy Burnham still needed to demonstrate his economic competence having earlier in the week finally taken the plunge and admitted that Labour had spent too much before the crash, while Yvette Cooper had a distinct message to get across.
All four candidates set to prove they were tough enough? Hell yes.
“It’s not enough to be angry with the world,” Ms Cooper asserted. “We’re the Labour Party, we’ve got to change the world.”
“I know you’re tired of politicians speaking in soundbites and all politicians being the same,” said Andy Burnham. Soundbites are now on the banned list, according to the shadow Health Secretary. Thus, we hope that Burnham will adhere to the rule-book set out by Backbench writer Marc Winsland last week.
“Our society is moving in the wrong direction,” was the verdict of a tieless Jeremy Corbyn. “For too many people, their job and their house is not a sense of security, it is a sense of anxiety.”
“We didn’t offer the alternative people wanted,” Liz Kendall stated on the economy. The country’s finances would turn out to be a big theme in a fun morning on the BBC.
“It wasn’t me sir, it was Gordon, I was in the toilet!” cried Mr Burnham (or words to that effect) as Andrew Neil took him to task for Labour’s budget deficit during his time as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. As the presenter attacked the Leigh MP down the left channel, Ms Cooper took the right flank and blasted him for admitting that the party spent too much in the pre-crash years.
Now it was Mr Corbyn’s turn for a rollicking. “How exactly are your loony left ideals ever going to work?” is a paraphrased version of Neil’s question. “You don’t need to borrow for socialism, you need to grow an economy,” replied the veteran backbencher with Obi-Wan Kenobi-esque composure.
On tax credits, chaos ensued. Kendall attacked Andrew Neil for his claim that acting leader Harriet Harman had told the show last week that ‘if you can’t afford a third child, don’t have it.’
“This is dog-whistle politics,” moaned Mr Burnham, in what definitely, definitely wasn’t a political soundbite.
Meanwhile, Shadow Home Secretary Cooper attacked Kendall for “thinking that all our policies have to start from Tory policy” – a smear that has been frequently deployed in recent weeks.
“You’d have *him* in your shadow Cabinet? Really?” guffawed Miss Kendall as Mr Burnham tried to gently imply he’d welcome Corbyn into his Shadow Cabinet.
In fairness to Mr Corbyn, the veteran MP remained composed and unflustered as Andrew Neil interrogated him for referring to representatives of Hamas and the IRA as his ‘friends’. This exchange stood in stark contrast to Corbyn's abrasive interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy on Channel 4 News earlier in the week.
And then, blessedly, it was over. “People look at us and see an elite talking in a language they just don’t understand,” concluded former parliamentary researcher and special adviser Burnham.
“We achieved great things in government. Vote for me and I’ll make it happen again,” promised Ms Kendall, just about achieving the balancing act of simultaneously not appearing like a Blairite, but promising a winning electoral strategy fixed on a centre-ground, Tory-lite agenda.
“I wish we weren’t having this debate,” said the shadow Home Secretary, echoing the thoughts of a nation.
Viewed cynically, yesterday’s hustings event revealed very little meaningful content. It was a tired slugging match between four rivals who we’ve seen many times before. Yet, such monotony could spell success for Jeremy Corbyn. The more dull and tedious the debates, the more likely Labour members are to back the candidate with a seemingly exciting, ‘radical’ vision. Time will tell whether Corbyn can maintain this momentum in the gruelling run-up to September’s ballot.