The contenders to become Labour leader have clashed over Brexit and compulsory re-selection for MPs in an occasionally testy hustings event, with the race to succeed Jeremy Corbyn intensifying as party members start to cast their ballots.
At Tuesday night’s event in Manchester organised by the Guardian, frontrunner Sir Keir Starmer came under sustained fire from Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy over what the latter called Labour’s “tone deaf” approach to Brexit, which they said helped contribute to December’s crushing election loss.
In return, Starmer, who as shadow Brexit secretary spearheaded the policy, said that during his many visits to constituencies over the campaign other issues came up, such as a lack of trust in Corbyn and worries over antisemitism in Labour.
Condemning what he said was a narrative that argued that if it had not been for Brexit it “would have all been fine” in the election, Starmer said: “If we go down that route we are heading straight towards defeat in the next general election, because that’s not an honest analysis.”
Long-Bailey and Nandy also clashed over the former’s support for compulsory re-selection for sitting Labour MPs, with Nandy saying she disagreed. “The MPs I’d like to get rid of are Tory ones not Labour ones,” Nandy said, winning applause.
While the final three-way battle for the leadership has been generally courteous, it is becoming more spiky with the ballots being sent to members this week and the various camps launching more direct attacks on each other.
As the hustings event took place, Long-Bailey’s team released a list of all her campaign funders over £1,500, which showed the Unite union has contributed over £200,000.
In a quote released with the list, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, Jon Trickett, a leading Long-Bailey supporter, said Starmer and Nandy “should do the same, as a matter of urgency”, playing on previous hints from the Long-Bailey camp that her rivals are receiving corporate support.
While no hugely telling blows landed during the Manchester debate, the hustings betrayed continued divisions between the candidates, notably over how Brexit was handled during the Labour election campaign.
Long-Bailey implicitly condemned Starmer’s Commons-based tactics against Theresa May’s minority government, saying: “Unfortunately, we focused a lot on what was happening within Westminster, and didn’t convey what we were trying to do to our community. And that led to a lack of trust.
“It took so many other things down with it. So in the election, when we should have been talking about jobs, aspiration, industry, what the future will look like, we were talking about Brexit and trying to justify our position, which was confusing.”
Speaking later in the event, Nandy said Labour’s problem with Brexit was that it “took all the wrong lessons from what the public were trying to tell us”.
She said: “Brexit was a real problem for us, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And the reason it was a problem was because our response was so utterly tone-deaf.”
But Starmer vehemently rejected this analysis, saying that “fairly or unfairly, rightly or wrongly”, Corbyn’s leadership was the number one issue on the doorstep, as well as what he called “manifesto overload”.
Starmer said: “Whether what was in the manifesto was right or wrong, there was too much. There was a tipping point, and it didn’t matter whether it was good or bad, because people didn’t believe we could deliver it.”
In his most personal answer, Starmer won loud applause for condemning media mockery of an answer he gave earlier this week in saying taking his children to watch football was one of the most exciting things he had done.
“These questions are supposed to be the measure of us and they are so ridiculous,” Starmer said. “In the last four weeks my wife’s mum has died, we’d been in intensive care with her before she died for 17 days.
“I had been trying to be the best husband I could be to my wife, the best dad I could be to my grieving children. Then I’m asked: ‘What is the most exciting thing you’ve ever done?’ And I’m judged on that. I know who I am.”
Long-Bailey, the chosen candidate of the Corbyn wing of the party, did offer some criticism of the party’s 2019 manifesto, saying policies such as a four-day week should have been presented as “a long-term aspiration rather than a five-year aspiration”.
She also clashed with Nandy over re-selections, saying they could promote talent like “the next Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez”, the Democrat congress member in the US.
Nandy said she disagreed, and that Labour had “spent months on this”. She said: “What it produced was women and ethnic minorities who were disproportionately targeted. If we had an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the Labour party, it would be her, and not the older, white male MPs who were targeted. That’s the lesson of the last few months.”