Forty seconds to answer a question is perfect for a politician. It gives you just enough time to sound as if you’ve said something, without saying anything much.
That was the format for the first Labour Party leadership hustings last Saturday.
Right wing candidate Jess Phillips later admitted she was “awful” during the hustings. She said she’d failed to be “bold,” “real” and “authentic”.
She hadn’t been clear enough, she seemed to say. “I was trying to hit a million different lines and messages.” But that’s not quite true.
Phillips stood out as the most right wing candidate on the stage, and was apparently very pleased about it.
She didn’t have much to promise other than “to speak in the language that people speak in on the doorsteps.”
What does this mean? Turns out it’s the dog whistle issue of “crime and security”. More cops available the next time she wants to call the police on travellers.
Phillips knows she probably won’t win. She’s struggling to get enough nominations from unions, Labour-affiliated societies or constituency parties to make it onto the ballot paper.
“Boris Johnson would be terrified to face me,” she pleaded at the hustings—apparently exasperated that no one else agrees.
The frontrunners are Rebecca Long-Bailey and Keir Starmer.
Starmer’s pitch was essentially to try and claim the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership while making it acceptable to the right.
That means “don’t trash” the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. But also “don’t trash” Corbyn’s leadership. His ambition to “capture the radicalism and make it relevant” really means take Labour to the right.
But it could have purchase among ordinary members demoralised by defeat and the argument that they lost because too many voters are right wing.
Yet if he’s a danger, it’s at least partly because the left’s candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey, has given too much ground to those arguments.
Too often, she didn’t sound so radically different to any of the other candidates.
Maybe that’s partly because Corbyn’s leadership shifted the terrain in the Labour Party. It’s not possible for the right to run for leadership on the same platform as Corbyn’s opponents did in 2015.
But a lot of the left’s radicalism has gone.
Shifting power and wealth in favour of working people has become shifting power “to our regions and nations.”
Changing the system is reduced to abolishing the House of Lords.
That’s not quite the radically different society Corbyn seemed to promise in 2015.
Long-Bailey is backed by Corbyn, and in that sense she is the Corbynite candidate. It’s just that Corbynism has lowered its sights over the years. Those 40-second answers can be quite telling.
Nostalgic supporters of the right wing Tony Blair governments were outraged to be told Tony Blair’s governments were right wing last week.
Speaking in parliament, Labour MP Zarah Sultana hoped to end “40 years of Thatcherism”—covering the Labour governments of Blair and Brown as well as Thatcher’s Tories.
The right feebly pointed to the mild reforms introduced under Blair. They like to forget Blair’s big project was—in the words of his own adviser Peter Mandelson—“to move forward from where Margaret Thatcher left off”.
That meant benefits cuts, pay cuts, job cuts and privatisation.
Labour haemorrhaged votes under the Blair and Brown governments.
When first elected in 1997 it got 13.5 million votes from people fed up with years of Tory rule. When it was booted out in 2010 it had just over eight and a half million.
It’s a warning to those who think being right wing will make Labour popular.
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