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13 February 2020updated 29 Jun 2021 3:25pm

Emily Thornberry is right to criticise those who say the Labour contest is “boring”

The leadership candidates are growing increasingly frustrated by the format of the debates – but, then again, what do they expect?

By George Grylls

It was Lisa Nandy who finally broke the fourth wall. An audience member on The Victoria Derbyshire Show asked the Labour leadership candidates to talk more about specific policies. “You’re right to challenge us on policy,” said the Wigan MP. “But these formats don’t give us the chance to do that.”

From that point on, all the leadership candidates decided enough was enough. Whenever they were asked for a yes or no answer or, even worse, a show of hands, increasingly they prefaced their response with a critique of the question. 

And they have a point. The format of all the debates and hustings thus far has been frustrating. How on earth, for example, do you answer something so intractable as the funding of social care with a soundbite? When Nandy was asked whether or not she would expel an obvious anti-Semite from the Labour Party as leader, she surprised everyone by answering “no”  she would establish an independent complaints commission to ensure there were no special favours handed out by the leader. Sometimes politicians need to be given time to speak.

The worst moment came when the candidates were asked to recall the last time they said “I love you” to somebody. Keir Starmer was forced to bring up the very recent death of his mother-in-law. “This is why these questions don’t work very well,” he said, in reference to his clearly emotional response. It was to Nandy’s credit that she diffused an otherwise tense situation with humour.

Starmer is right. Nandy is right. All the candidates are right. Hustings and debates have become hurried affairs that attempt to cover the entirety of political debate to the sound of a ticking clock. As a format, they are a poor substitute for sit-down interviews with well-briefed journalists (the obvious two who come to mind are Andrew Neil and Emily Maitlis). Ideally, these interviews should interrogate politicians on a few specific topics  Neil tackling Nicola Sturgeon at length on her post-independence currency plans during the general election was a good example.

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But the candidates ought to know that these sorts of interviews are the agenda-setting exceptions. A large part of being a politician is performing for the media in a very limited time. That means playing the game.

Like it or loathe it, the media  and the general public at large  will not listen to a long, thorough comparison of the candidate’s relative positions on nursing bursaries. But they will watch MPs tear shreds out of one another. So if you are the outsider in a leadership race, and want to get back into the contest, you have to be brutally candid about one of your colleagues to tease out some news from a hustings. Emily Thornberry recognises this and dismissed Rebecca Long-Bailey’s claim to have spoken out on anti-Semitism with a headline-grabbing aside in yesterday’s Newsnight debate. 

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At the end of The Victoria Derbyshire Show, and with all the candidates at the end of their tethers, Thornberry spoke up on their behalf. “The media call it boring,” she said, of the candidates’ attempts to tackle questions seriously, “but it is grown up and responsible politics.”

She is right. The media should not be bored. The public should not be either. But that’s just not how the world works. Playing the game  condensing policies into effective soundbites, doing the personality thing  is unfortunately part and parcel of being a good politician.