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18 January 2020updated 20 Jan 2020 2:05pm

Five thoughts on Labour’s first leadership hustings

The new format is a gift to the frontrunner.

By Stephen Bush

The format is useful: for party members, but also for the frontrunner

Labour Party leadership hustings in this contest have a number of new rules: opening statements are out, and candidates have just 40 seconds to answer each question from party members, and cannot interrupt each other.

On the one hand, this is a very important part of the day-to-day job of being the leader of the opposition, so it’s good that at least part of the leadership contest equips members to find out if the respective candidates can do it.
On the other, if you are the frontrunner – and it is hard to make a case that anyone other than Keir Starmer is – provided you can do a clipped 40-second answer then it makes it harder for other candidates to discomfort you, or to showcase ways they are different to you.

It particularly disadvantages Long-Bailey – who doesn’t have very many opportunities in that format to remind the audience that she is actually pretty funny – and Emily Thornberry, who badly needs to turn the contest on its head if she is to win.

Rebecca Long-Bailey’s green new deal dividing line is badly chosen

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There has been a significant but marked improvement in Long-Bailey’s campaign, but one difficult legacy from its original pitch remains: the use of the green new deal as a point of differentiation.

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The problem is that the green new deal as it exists as an actual Labour policy has already had all of its difficult edges sanded off – that’s why the big trades unions were in the end all relaxed about its passage. That achievement is a good example of something Long-Bailey can do well – managing different parts of the party – but it isn’t something which differentiates her from the rest of the field.

Jess Phillips seems badly briefed

For the second time in this leadership race, Jess Phillips looked under-briefed and under-prepared compared to the rest of the field. “Speak truth, win power” won’t win votes if it looks like a shorthand for “speak off the cuff, provide an incoherent opposition”.

Emily Thornberry is the most fluent, still

We saw how Emily Thornberry will hope she can turn around the leadership race: by being the most fluent and polished of the candidates. But is anyone listening? More than anyone, she has reasons to rue the hustings format.

Lisa Nandy is in it to win it

Lisa Nandy started this campaign running on an ideas-led platform and it was far from clear how she would make the final ballot. She now has a pretty good chance of making it to the contest proper. As a result, her pitch has changed somewhat: it’s become more member-friendly. A good example of that was on display today: out with her previous criticism of specific parts of the last manifesto, in with less tangible and more popular claims about the difficulty selling it.

The risk there is that there is already a candidate saying that in Keir Starmer, and it’s not certain that his voters are minded to look elsewhere.