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20 January 2020

What Lisa Nandy got right – and Jess Phillips got wrong – about Labour’s hustings

Labour's hustings format only tests one aspect of leadership, but it's still an important one.

By Stephen Bush

Lisa Nandy and Jess Phillips have a shared complaint over the format that Labour has chosen for its hustings to decide the next leader. Both thinks that the 40-second answer format, with no time for the candidates to debate one another, is denying party members a proper debate and the opportunity to scrutinise the candidates.

Nandy has written an open letter to the party hierarchy asking them to tear up the format, while Phillips has written an article in the Guardian castigating the format, which she admits she was “crap” at, saying: “the format of the hustings is terrible… to answer any question in 40 seconds is ridiculous”.

Nandy is 100 per cent right. As I wrote after the hustings, the problem with the format is that it tests one important aspect of effective political leadership – the ability to communicate key messages in a crisp and quick way that appeals to the voters you are targeting – but it leaves members in the dark about many others.

It would be a useful test if it turned out that only one of the five candidates running could do communicate in this way, but fortunately for Labour members, four of the five candidates can do it. Lisa Nandy can do it, Keir Starmer can do it, Rebecca Long-Bailey can do it and Emily Thornberry can do it. Plainly, a debate format that tells you only that four out of five candidates can do one specific thing very well is not providing much in the way of useful scrutiny.

Phillips, however, is only half-right. She’s right in that the format doesn’t reveal anything that allows anyone to make a judgement between Starmer, Long-Bailey, Thornberry and Nandy. But she’s wrong in that it does provide a copper-bottomed reason not to vote for her. Bluntly, if she dislikes having to condense her thoughts into 40-second bromides on a slanted playing field, she is going to absolutely hate being the leader of the opposition. Not being able to compete in this arena is a black mark against her – and no amount of straight-talking can change that.

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But the good news for Lisa Nandy is that the argument doesn’t matter all that much: Labour’s subsequent hustings will receive very little coverage. What will matter will be the televised hustings, which are likely to have a format that better allows her to differentiate herself from Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey: provided she can pick up enough trade union support to make the ballot proper, which is likely but not certain.

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The bad news for Phillips is that those televised hustings will take place after the nomination process has reached its end: and it is highly unlikely that she will be able to pick up the required 33 constituency nominations to make it to that stage of the process.