Debate of the nation. Photo: Getty
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Are we any closer to a deal on the televised leaders' debates?

The broadcasters' new offer of a seven-way panel means the Tories are willing to negotiate.

As if the TV debates themselves (if they happen) won't be long and rambling enough, the journey to agreeing the line-up has become the most tedious saga of the general election campaign.

But it finally looks like our leaders might be coming close to an agreement. Last week, ITV and the BBC revealed that they had proposed a new line-up for the debates, with seven-way panels including the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru. This plan means the Conservatives, so keen for the Greens' inclusion as a potential drain on Labour support, are close to agreeing David Cameron's participation in the debates.

The Tory party chairman, Grant Shapps, has called the new plan "a lot more sensible" than the initial line-ups, which would have pitted the PM against Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage. "I think we are edging here towards something that makes more sense," he added, on the BBC's Sunday Politics.

The leader of the Greens, Natalie Bennett, has confirmed that she would represent her party in the debates, rather than the only Green MP and former leader, Caroline Lucas. She has been fighting for her party's representation in the debates for some time, and welcomes the broadcasters' new deal.

However, problems remain. The DUP's representative in Westminster, Nigel Dodds MP, calls it a "farcical situation" that his party has not been asked to participate in the multiple-party panels. His party has eight MPs. Also, the Lib Dems believe they should be represented in all four debates; the Channel 4 and Sky News offers each remain a simple Cameron/Miliband head-to-head.

With hints from Shapps that the Tories are inching towards an agreement, it looks like the Prime Minister is very likely to take part, which would mean that – in whatever configuration – the debates are well on the way to our screens.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.