Try not to think of it as a debate. Try to think of it as couples therapy. Two people with irreconcilable differences fighting for custody of a child that most people have given up on.
The Labour leadership has long since stopped being a contest in any meaningful sense. Positions were taken and minds made up before the ballot papers were ever printed. Nothing either Jeremy Corbyn or Owen Smith did or said was ever going to change a thing. Corbyn was always going to win at a canter. The hustings were only ever window dressing; a psychodrama for voyeurs intruding on the private grief of the Labour party.
When the therapy started back in early August, Corbyn and Smith were relatively polite to each other. Corbyn was Corbyn and Smith was Mini-Me. But as the reality that he was on a road to nowhere began to penetrate his consciousness, Smith began to get angry and frustrated. He saw a future that could only end in unhappiness and wondered why he had ever allowed himself to be cast as the saviour of a party that was beyond saving; a party the opinion polls indicated the rest of the country thought was unelectable. Smith lashed out. He insulted Corbyn, accusing him of crimes against the party and humanity; in a more measured fashion, Corbyn fought fire with fire.
The therapy was going nowhere. There was only one possible way forward: the nuclear option. The Jeremy Kyle Show. Aka a BBC live debate hosted by David Dimbleby in front of a TV audience that had more interest in making mischief than getting answers. After Dimbleby had made his opening remarks, Corbyn and Smith were introduced to the audience; both looked as if they had just realised the debate wasn’t such a good idea after all and would have dearly loved an opportunity to back out.
“You’re both unelectable,” said the first questioner. “Why don’t you both stand aside and let someone else unite the party?” Disagreeing with this was about the only thing that Corbyn and Smith could agree on for the next hour.
Corbyn was insistent that only Smith was unelectable and that once the contest was over, people would come flocking back to the Labour party under his leadership. A large section of the audience cheered at this. Smith was equally adamant that Corbyn was the problem and cited the opinion polls. A small section of the audience applauded; a larger number booed. Everything was going entirely to plan. The Labour party was tearing itself apart on primetime TV.
The only person who seemed bothered by this was one woman in the audience who was on the verge of tears at the contempt that different factions of the Labour party had for one another. Corbyn tried to cheer her up by saying he was certain that millions of people who had never voted before were desperate to vote for Labour at the next election. Just believe. The woman didn’t look as if she had Corbyn’s faith.
On it went. Corbyn’s ideology versus Smith’s pragmatism, with neither giving an inch. The problem for Smith was that ideology was winning hands down in the audience. The debate quickly turned more personal. “You did this,” said Smith. “No I didn’t,” replied Corbyn. “You did.” The EU. Immigration. Defence. The topics came and went, but the divisions remained the same, though both achieved the same end. Both made voting Labour look an unattractive option. By the end, real Labour supporters were begging for the programme to end.
As it did so, a trail announced that it would be repeated at 1.25 on Saturday morning. Something for masochists and Tories only.