Theresa May was the real winner of the Labour Leadership debate

As Labour heads to war, including a battle over who’s achievement each ‘Labour win’ is, Theresa May revels in the glory

Theresa May didn’t say a word — but she’s certainly the winner of the Leadership debate | source: Financial Times

As Labour’s incumbent leader Jeremy Corbyn and his challenger Owen Smith gathered in Cardiff to debate the future of the Labour Party’s leadership, direction and policy, the media had all eyes on how the two men would perform. In London, however, one woman certainly wasn’t laughing. That woman? The Prime Minister – Theresa May.

The debate showed just how low the Labour Party has sunk. From the days of Prime Minister Blair and Brown, the party of Attlee and of so many great social democratic governments sunk to new lows we haven’t seen in a generation. Two men fighting it out for the leadership of a party currently as much as 12% points behind the Conservatives in the polls.

But it isn’t just the polling that should worry Labour members and Labour voters. This leadership contest should be about the very soul of the Labour Party, about what it means to be the centre-left political force in Britain. Instead, the two men are acting as though this is a student union debate about non-issues.

While Owen Smith talks about “needing a Labour Government”, he spells out no credible economic or social vision for the country to buy into. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn attempts to continue his vision of a ‘politics without power’ – turning Labour into a social movement of middle class intellectuals intent on protest and not fighting for those in need.

Neither Smith nor Corbyn has the credible vision this country so desperately is crying out for.

Let’s take the two candidates’ infrastructure spending proposals as examples. Jeremy Corbyn began the campaign promising a £200bn investment scheme, before Smith could ‘one-up’ him and announce a £300bn policy. Days later the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell upped the Corbyn camp’s offer to £500bn.

Throwing large numbers around isn’t policy making and leads to bad campaigns and bad government (if that is ever achieved, doubtful with the two contenders). Instead of offering solutions to actual problems, both men are peddling arbitrary figures to excite the base. In the meantime, it does nothing to explain to the public that Labour can be economically and financially credible.

That is the heart of Labour’s problems. The party isn’t seen as one which can deliver good, efficient government. It’s one that is seen of high taxes and even higher public spending. As much as you or I may disagree, the electorate see the abandoning of deficit reduction as irresponsible. Labour already knows that it lost the General Election in 2015 because it wasn’t trusted on the economy. Moving to the economic left certainly isn’t going to help, and neither candidate is addressing that.

Owen Smith’s “policies” for Labour | Source: Owen Smith 2016

Owen Smith is adopting Green Party policy from 2015. Policies like the wealth tax, massive investment in renewable energy, banning zero hour contracts all appeared in the 2015 Green Party manifesto — and all were criticised by the likes of Smith and other Labour politicians like Sadiq Khan, the head of the “anti-Green group”, as far left and unworkable.

Here policies haven’t become mainstream in a year. If anything, the majority of British politics is moving right. UKIP are going nowhere, the Tories are riding high, and only the Scottish National Party is a centre-left force really still riding high, and even they will face difficulties in coming years.

And this is where Labour are failing to address their issue. You don’t need to be at the far left to tackle inequality or provide good health care and education. However, you cannot win an election, and moving Labour and Labour’s internal debate to the far left opens up swathes of centrist voters for the Tories to sweep up.

That’s why Theresa May is the only real winner from yesterday’s Labour leadership debate. While Labour not only battles itself but also confines itself to the left fringe of British politics, the rhetoric of blue collar conservatism spoken by the likes of Theresa May, Ruth Davidson and others can prevail.

We saw what happened last time Labour refused to come out of the darkness of the far left in 1983. Labour members must hope the party can once again claw itself back to the centre ground, or it may be doomed to electoral irrelevency once again for a generation.