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5 August 2016

Owen Smith vs Jeremy Corbyn: four things we learned in the first Labour leadership debate

Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn went head-to-head for the first time. Here's what we found out.

By Stephanie Boland

Phew! The first of Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith’s hustings is over. Livestreamed on the Labour Party website, the event saw both leadership candidates take questions from voters on the economy, anti-semitism, gender equality and other hot topics. But what did we find out?

1. The audience has changed

From boos when Smith talked about unity and shouts to jeers when he discussed anti-semitism, the mood in the room was tense – even hostile.

“We are not behaving like comrades to each other in this party”, Smith said. “This room is in indicator of that”.

Some MPs even took to Twitter asking why Corbyn was not addressing the behaviour of the audience.

It’s not 2015 any more, folks. 

2. Labour’s got a lot of dirty laundry

Given that news of Shami Chakrabarti’s peerage broke shortly before the hustings started, the lack of discussion about it was notable – although not surprising. Nor was the fact neither candidate mentioned May 2015 much, despite both of their pitches being remarkably close to Ed Miliband’s.

Intra-party competitions are complicated for candidates. After all, both have a stake in Labour’s recent record, and it was hard for Smith to bring up topics like the EU referendum campaign – over which he tried to criticise Corbyn – without being implicated himself.

The debate saw a lot of Labour dirty laundry aired in public, including details of shadow cabinet meetings and a possible role of “party president” which, Corbyn said, Smith offered him in June. More than once, the current leader used the ultimate rejoinder of Smith’s resignation: “Owen, you walked away.”

With eight more debates to go, things could get messy.

3. The challenger will have an uphill battle

As incumbent, Jeremy Corbyn gets to be optimistic about Labour’s current situation. He claimed by-election wins, mayoral elections and the Tory U-turn on tax credit cuts as victories for the party.

As the challenger to the status quo, it fell to Smith to highlight the party’s failings.  From Ukip to Trident, he was the voice of – depending on who you ask – reason or cynicism. At one point, he told Corbyn blunty that “this is not a success”.

This places Smith at a marked disadvantage. “Project Fear” may have a hope of playing well among voters, but Project Pessimism doesn’t. If Smith wants to convince Labour members he’s the man to take the party forward, he needs to make a case for change that doesn’t lean so hard on the negative.

4. In ideology versus practicality, ideology wins

At times, watching the hustings felt like watching two different conversations happen at once. Corbyn’s campaign appeals to big picture ideology. As in 2015, his arguments are all about vision. This allowed him to return to his core themes of poverty, justice and unity when asked about economy, security and Labour’s electoral chances.

Smith’s case, however, is about competency. He wants voters to believe that his ideas are not that different from Corbyn’s – but he, unlike Corbyn, can put them into practice. “We’re a Labour government in waiting”, he told his opponent, “not a protest movement”.

The problem for Smith is we know exactly what happens when ideology comes against practicality, because we saw it last summer. Corbyn didn’t win a landslide because he had a detailed, tactical plan. There’s little reason to think he needs one this time.