Labour’s two big obsessions—electability and party unity—were the big themes of its first leadership hustings in Cardiff last night, Thursday.
Challenger Owen Smith opened up on electability. “I know you’re radical," he told leader Jeremy Corbyn. “I’m radical. But I want to be radical in government, not in protesting.”
Corbyn hit back by slamming Labour MPs for destroying party unity. “We were ahead in May,” he pointed out. “Then came the wave of resignations. Then came the threat to our party.
“Members of parliament should realise the structures of our party has changed”.
Despite the depth of Labour’s crisis, the two candidates often sounded remarkably similar.
Smith can take most of the credit for that. More than once his replies to Corbyn would begin with how much they both agree.
Smith even said that Labour needed “the most radical, practical socialist programme for government that we’ve seen since 1945.”
It was another sign of how Labour’s right has been forced to tack left to try and win back Corbyn supporters. Smith took positions throughout the debate that would have been unthinkable for any Labour leader in the past two decades.
He slammed Tory prime minister Theresa May for sending out “racist ad vans” telling migrants to go home when she was home secretary. He attacked Ukip’s Nigel Farage for his “racist posters” during the European Union referendum campaign.
This should be the minimum you would expect from any Labour MP. But it was only just over a year ago that Labour produced racist mugs promising “controls on immigration”.
Now Smith refused to say that he would set any specific limits on migration. He told the audience, “We are an immigrant nation.”
On austerity he was much the same. He even called for “good old fashioned socialist policies” such as taxing the rich to pay for “a recession caused by Tory greed and banker greed”.
But Smith knew his strongest cards were electability and credibility—and played he them at every opportunity. For every answer that began with how much he agreed with Corbyn, there was a punchline on how Corbyn is unelectable and not credible.
“We agree on so much of this stuff. But I don’t think we can win at the moment," he said. “Without being able to win I don’t see how we can do anything other than protest.”
Corbyn’s responses involved fewer soundbites, less sloganeering—and were more sincere for it. They were a reminder that his positions are by and large the ones he’s always held. They were also his strength.
“In the last general election we were not an anti-austerity party,” he pointed out. “We were proposing to continue the public sector wage freeze and continue some cuts to local services.
“We lost because we failed to offer an alternative.”
On the refugee crisis Corbyn went where most other politicians still refuse to go and attacked border controls.
He was scathing about “the idea that you can solve the problem by building barbed wire fences between Greece and Macedonia and then be horrified when you see those people drowning in the sea.”
But the pressure on Corbyn to prove himself “credible” and “electable” was clearly at work. He mirrored Smith’s explanation that being anti-austerity was all about being “financially responsible”.
And he came dangerously close to agreeing with Smith on migration controls. Smith had said migration “causes problems” in some areas of the country.
Corbyn said, “Without migrant workers we wouldn’t have the health service we’ve got. We wouldn’t have the education service we’ve got."
But he also said he recognised people’s “unease” about migration adding, “There has to be a preventing of the undercutting of wages.”
Corbyn was at his best when he clearly disagreed with Smith. His biggest cheer came when he spoke out against Trident nuclear missiles. Smith’s claim to be a “Bevanite” on the issue of nukes elicited audible groans.
And Corbyn was at his strongest when he took the arguments about electability head on.
Summing up he said, “We can win a general election and we’ve been winning elections all this year.
“People are engaged in politics in a way they never were before. Mobilise and enthuse people—we’ll go a lot further.”
Labour’s obsessions with electability and party unity have led many on its left astray. They pile on the pressure to compromise with the right.
The surest way for Corbyn to beat Smith is to resist that pressure.