Don't expect these two to go down to the pub together anytime soon. (Photo: Getty)
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5 things we learned from the Chancellors' debate

Labour are still haunted by the past, the Conservatives have no plan for housing in the forseeable future, and the first leaders' debates looks likely to be a snoozefest.

1)  No winners, and one big loser.

There will be no big stories out of that display, which both George Osborne and Ed Balls will regard as a job well done. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and his opposite number did the political equivalent of playing out a goalless draw; it may have served both their purposes but it made for terrible entertainment.

Spare a thought for Sky and Channel 4; this is effectively the same format of the first “debate” between David Cameron and Ed Miliband on Thursday. On this showing, only the committed will make their way to the end of the programme.

2) The In campaign sounds troublingly like Better Together.

For more optimistic pro-Europeans this was heartening viewing; George Osborne struck a surprisingly pro-European note in his Q&A, talking about the importance of Britain’s role in Europe, and that the room was fairly pro-Europe bodes well for the In campaign’s ability to marshal elite opinion.

But it all feels troublingly close to the “Leave and we’ll kill you” message that Better Together deployed in the independence referendum – which was only able to secure the support of 55 per cent of the vote. It’s not yet clear if the same approach can work with a union with far less in-built affection than the United Kingdom.

3) At some point, the Tories are going to have to build some bloody houses

The closest anyone came to floundering – and the closest this debate came to being interesting – was when George Osborne faced questions about the housing crisis. He ticked through the Conservatives’ buzzwords competently enough, but without a way to actually build more houses, looked flat.

It suggests that for all David Cameron’s attempts to find a policy with the appeal of Right to Buy, none of their warm words on housing will have much purchase until the building starts.

4) George Osborne has learnt from Bill Clinton

It’s rumoured that George Osborne has accepted that he will not be David Cameron’s replacement, but he looked more and more like a candidate for the highest office at Facebook HQ, standing up, pacing around, talking to people about where they were from. An immobile Ed Balls looked less technically accomplished.

5) Sorry seems to be the hardest word

Speaking of technically accomplished...it could be that the audience, too, was restless after George Osborne’s bore-a-thon, but it was a pricklier crowd for Ed Balls, who faced hostile questions about Labour’s legacy. Caught between defending the record and disavowing the whole thing, Labour still don’t quite have a convincing narrative on their last stay in office.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.