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Labour leadership debate: Jeremy Corbyn's opponents fail to land blows in final televised hustings

Published 04/09/2015

Labour leadership contenders (left - right) Jeremy Corbyn, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall (partially obscured) and Andy Burnham after a live debate
Labour leadership contenders (left - right) Jeremy Corbyn, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall (partially obscured) and Andy Burnham after a live debate
Labour leadership contenders Jeremy Corbyn (2nd right) and Andy Burnham (right) after a live debate on Sky News held at Sage in St Mary's Square, Gateshead.

Next Saturday the new leader of Labour will be announced – revealing the direction the party will take for the next five years.

The four candidates travelled to Gateshead for the last televised hustings of what has, by any standards, been an eventful campaign.

It was the final chance for the four to persuade Labour members – and the party’s new (controversial) supporters – that they have the ability, vision and policies to beat the Conservatives in 2020.

So with at least one-third of Labour electorate yet to vote, how did they perform and where does it leave their campaigns as they enter the final straight?

Jeremy Corbyn

The left-winger started the race as the rank outsider but now, extraordinarily, the Labour leadership is now his to lose.

Here, Mr Corbyn appeared strangely diffident – and at times gruff and irritable. After spending the past few weeks addressing mass audiences of the new faithful this was clearly a more difficult proposition.

To a greater or lesser extent he was the target for attacks from all the other candidates. He was attacked for his Euro-scepticism, his inability to appeal to the wider public and his stance on foreign affairs.

At the very end Yvette Cooper launched into a impassioned critique of his economic policy which brought the debate alive. She accused him of being dishonest with his pledge to print money to spend on schools, hospitals and infrastructure which, she said, was a “false promise” on par with pledges by Nick Clegg to scrap tuition fees before the 2010 election.

But it is a sign of where Labour is at the moment that it was not Ms Cooper’s attack that got the cheers but Mr Corbyn’s rather weaker rebuttal.

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Yvette Cooper

Even her own supporters would admit that Ms Cooper began her campaign too cautiously. She was uninspiring, lacked passion, and appeared keener not to offend any wing of the party than to offer a clear vision of her own political beliefs.

But the Corbyn surge has changed that. Her speech taking on Mr Corbyn’s vision for Labour was one of the most impressive of the campaign – and her call for Britain to take 10,000 Syrian refugees made the political weather.

It was her attack on Mr Corbyn in the final minutes that was the stand-out moment of the debate. She passionately accused him of “letting people down” by proffering policies that were economically illiterate and would allow the Tories to “get away” with the “ideology of austerity” and defeat Labour again in 2020.

But while she seems to have emerged over the past couple of weeks as the most credible “stop Corbyn” alternative big problems remain for her campaign. She does not have a natural constituency either on the right or the left of the party. If she wins it will be as the compromise candidate who attracts the most second preferences. The Labour audience gave her polite applause but there was no real enthusiasm.

Andy Burnham

It is a sign of the problems of Mr Burnham’s campaign that when an audience member asked whether the candidates would be prepared to compromise their political principles to get elected Adam Boulton, the presenter, went to Mr Burnham first and the audience of Labour members laughed.

The shadow Health Secretary started this race as favourite but has, undeniably, underperformed. In part that is because he tried to be all things to all people: the union candidate who was pro-business; the authentic Northerner who could appeal to swing Labour voters in the South, and the man who would stop all the Tory cuts while balancing the books.

His shifting positions – trying to counter the threat posed by Mr Corbyn while flirting with the right of the party – is uncomfortable to watch and was evident again in this clash. He seems less happy in his skin than Mr Corbyn or Liz Kendall and has a tendency towards soundbites with little meaning. We were, according to Mr Burnham, at a “dangerous crossroads”, but he could “reach out”, “rebuild trust” and “make people believe again”.

Liz Kendall

She had a very rocky start to the campaign. She was the Blairite standard-bearer – but soon realised there were far fewer Blairites in the 2015 Labour Party than she and London commentators had assumed. With unpopular policies such as backing Tory plans to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence she also seemed to have forgotten the first rule of the former leader: do whatever you have to do to win.

From the beginning, Ms Kendall was unfairly abused by the left as a Tory stooge but to her immense credit she has doggedly stuck to her principles – even if they are uncomfortable to the party faithful.

She told the audience that Labour had to “apply our principles to the world as it is rather than the world as we would like it to be”. She was also uncompromising on austerity – “I don’t want to be spending more money servicing our debt than educating our children”.

The truth is that Ms Kendall is going to come fourth in this campaign – even her own supporters are not pretending otherwise.

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