The Labour leadership contest – my outsider’s verdict so far…

by Stephen Tall on June 24, 2015

labour leader newsnightI’ve finally got round to watching BBC Newsnight’s Labour leadership hustings (available to watch here for another 24 days). Here’s my verdict…

There was no doubt in my mind who was the strongest performer: Islington left-winger Jeremy Corbyn. This isn’t a cute point by me to try and coax Labour members into actually voting for a 1983-throwback as their party leader. Obviously, they shouldn’t. He would be an election-losing disaster. But what impressed me was his fluency and his intellectual self-confidence (on which it’s well worth reading this piece by Jeremy Cliffe), including his willingness to stand up to the anti-immigrant feeling among some of the Labour considerers in the audience.

The two front-runners, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, did okay. Yvette did a good job of presenting herself as the solid, pragmatic, sensible choice. Which is a polite way of also saying she was also a bit dull. However, I suspect she’s the candidate the Tories most fear — Labour’s version of Theresa May (tough, no-nonsense, non-visionary), and a leader who will be harder for Cameron and Osborne to attack without coming across as sexist bullies. Andy was more lively, did a good job of illuminating his answers with his back-story and constituency experiences — but he did nothing to dispel the view that he’s the comfort zone candidate for Labour, a “prettier Ed Miliband”.

And then there was Liz Kendall. Now I want to like Liz, was rooting for her to do well. I sometimes describe myself as a liberal Blairite and she seems the closest candidate to my persuasion. And given the Lib Dems aren’t going to be in government for at least a decade I’d like someone like that to have a chance to be the next Prime Minister. But I was disappointed. She sloganeered, with little seeming depth, and showed few signs of connecting with her audience. This wasn’t a one-off. She also did poorly when interviewed by Evan Davis. Indeed since she famously floored Andrew Neil I’m hard-pushed to recall a time when I’ve been impressed.

What still weighs in her favour in my mind is that she’s attracted the support of Labour people I respect, such as former LabourList editor Mark Ferguson and the always thoughtful blogger Hopi Sen. But based on the evidence to date I cannot help feeling they’re projecting what they want to see — a post-Blairite female leader with the smarts to take on the Tories and win — onto someone who just isn’t ready to take up that mantle. I still hope Liz proves me wrong, mind.