It’s been fascinating to see the first reactions to the first hustings of the Labour leadership campaign, held last night in Cardiff. As one of those fortunate enought to get a ticket in the ballot, it was difficult to know what to expect – and curious to see how the media have covered the event. For a start, contrary to the some of the reporting, including a somewhat overwrought piece in the Guardian, it was not a “rowdy” event. It was certainly passionate, and occasionally noisy – but it was, crucially, an event that showed very clearly some of the differences in style and politics between the potential leaders. My best guess is that this audience, at the outset, was about two to one for Corbyn; but the Smith minority were vocal and enthusiastic too.
My own view was that Owen Smith was clearly the more polished performer, with a far greater command of detail – but, perhaps unexpectedly, was much the more passionate performer too. One of Jeremy Corbyn’s weaknesses as a speaker is that it is always very obvious when he’s not engaged in an issue – he simply rattles through his prepared brief. Owen Smith never falls into that trap – he’s always trying to reach out to his audience. One of the questioners asked the candidates why they were the candidate that Teresa May would fear; Smith’s combination of passion and detail answered that question eloquently.
On the specific issues under debate, perhaps the clearest message was that Blairism is dead. There was a lot of agreement between Corbyn and Smith on economic issues; both argued passionately against austerity, but Smith had far more command of the detail – Corbyn is clearly far from his comfort zone when talking about economics and doesn’t go beyond generalities. And Smith acknowledged that in the year since Corbyn’s victory the debate had changed; we were a million miles from the uneasy acceptance of Tory framing that characterised, say, Liz Kendall’s campaign a year ago.
Throughout the debate, Owen Smith’s mantra – repeated again and again – was the need for Labour to win elections and gain power to deliver for the people who needed the Party. And it was clear that the message was getting through, the applause in the hall getting progressively warmer as the evening went on. There was a clear shift in the hall towards Smith during the debate.
And it was noticeable that Smith’s support was at its most vocal – and Corbyn’s position at its weakest and most defensive – when Smith talked about how Labour should have done far, far better during the EU referendum. Again, Corbyn fell back on talk of how many rallies he had addressed during the campaign, how many media appearances he had made, and how Islington had voted to remain and Pontypridd had voted to leave. But this missed the point about looking outwards and about leading the media, not issuing invitations to rallies and hoping for the best. It was surely significant that the loudest cheer of the evening was not for Smith, or Corbyn, but for Carwyn Jones, who wasn’t even in the hall – as an example of a leader who both embraced a centre-left programme and won elections. It seemed clear from reactions in the hall that Smith’s passion for winning could be his biggest asset in the long campaign ahead.
Two issues provided important insights into the mindsets of the candidates. The first was immigration; when Owen Smith started by saying he wanted an honest debate on immigration, my heart sank a little: this was after all the language of those who have sought to avoid an honest understanding of the economics of immigration and to pander to prejudice. But Smith went off in a completely different direction; immigration was vital to the economy but the benefits were unevenly spread, and getting the economy growing again would take the sting out of the debate. I’m not sure that I have ever heard as full an acceptance of the fact that suspicion of immigration is an economic construct before from a mainstream politician; this is a huge and brave step forward, and a world away from those obnoxious mugs the party produced for the 2015 election. And this is far more radical than anything being offered on the traditional Left.
Second, anti-Semitism. It was horrifying to hear boos from the audience when Smith said that it was always unacceptable. The fact that some of the specific allegations of anti-Semitism within the Party have been shown to be unfounded does not mean that there has not been a problem; if Jewish Labour members feel uncomfortable in the Party that’s obviously unacceptable, and a problem that must be addressed.
In the end, this was not a debate about policy; it was about style, and about the sort of Party Labour should be. We were staring directly into the fault line between the party of protest and the party of power, and sitting and debating a few miles away from some of the poorest communities in Europe. The fact that this audience, with its pro-Corbyn majority, responded so positively to Owen Smith’s comments about electability is, at the eleventh hour, a sign of hope.