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12 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:15pm

Scrappy Newsnight debate leaves Keir Starmer’s frontrunner status unscathed

All of the candidates bar one seem to have the same diagnosis about winning the Labour leadership race.

By Stephen Bush

Rightly or wrongly, all the Labour leadership candidates believe that their path to victory runs through making sure there is no significant space on their left flank.

They have different ways of packaging that. Keir Starmer, the frontrunner, talks about the need for radicalism, but also reiterates that Labour has lost four elections on the bounce – his way of reminding Labour members that he leads in the polls of ordinary voters.

Lisa Nandy talks about the need for the party to be honest about its spending commitments, before backing the same policies as Keir Starmer. (Tonight’s hustings had a good example of that: she warned against promising the Earth, citing the scrapping of tuition fees. A few minutes later she confirmed she, too, would commit to scrapping tuition fees.)

Emily Thornberry’s approach is to have the same policy positions as Lisa Nandy, while being the most polished media performer. She was the only candidate who made headlines – with a side-swipe at Rebecca Long-Bailey for remaining silent on Labour anti-Semitism in the shadow cabinet.

Thornberry’s problem – even though she is likely to squeeze on to the ballot at the last, as Gareth Thomas did in Labour’s mayoral race in 2015 – is that many Labour members appear to share the assessment of one Conservative minister: “Thornberry would win PMQs most weeks, she’d have us on the run on a couple of issues, then we’d win a bigger majority.” It’s hard to see how she can escape the perception among the party’s rank-and-file that she is irretrievably damaged goods in the eyes of the electorate.

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I think Nandy’s difficulty is that she’s not convincingly distinctive enough from the Corbynite policy platform to sell herself as a clean break from the recent past, and so peel off significant numbers of votes from Keir Starmer. And yet tonally, she probably succeeds enough at positioning herself as a breach with Corbynism to prevent her taking significant numbers of votes from Rebecca Long-Bailey. She does well on second preferences, but she is not getting enough first preferences for that to matter.

As for Starmer, he is playing a textbook performance of frontrunners throughout the age: no risk, however small, is being taken, except perhaps just how risk-averse his campaign looks.

There’s one exception to the general pattern of behaviour: ironically it comes from Rebecca Long-Bailey, whose comment that she ranked Jeremy Corbyn “ten out of ten” appears to have ruled her out in the minds of many members and to have cut through to the wider electorate as well. She was the only candidate to say that the Conservatives will have scrapped free movement long before the next election and not to commit to fighting for it. I’m not necessarily saying I think this is a good thing but it is, whatever you think of Long-Bailey’s overall pitch, an actual policy concession to the voters Labour has been losing ground with since the 2001 general election. But that this seems counter-intuitive reflects her biggest problem with Labour members – she is just not competing at all for the votes of Labour Party activists who broadly want to keep most of the Corbynite agenda while winning power again.

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If Nandy’s big achievement is that she has managed to present continuity as a significant breach, Long-Bailey’s signal failure is that even when she breaks with the past she is seen as more of the same.

But the biggest point from tonight’s debate, will, I think, be that there is comparatively little space between the candidates – which will only benefit the person ahead going into the contest, Keir Starmer.