It was billed as the struggle for the soul of the Labour Party, but last night’s debate between Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn more closely resembled its last rites.
After his battle with Eagle to be the official challenger, Smith was meant to offer a preferable alternative for Labour’s future. Instead he managed the remarkable feat of making Corbyn look like the better candidate. He indulged in every bit of his opponent’s meaningless rote about unspecified new economic models and “investment” (ie new debt), but allowed himself to be portrayed as an apologist for Trump and added in an extraordinary contempt for democracy.
Having already been heckled and laughed at by the audience when he tried to argue for a re-run of the referendum in order that Britain might stay in the EU, this was Smith’s answer to a mocking question about whether he would re-run elections in order to get the “right” result, too:
— Sky News (@SkyNews) 14 September 2016
It takes some going to outdo Corbyn in the unpopular ideas stakes, but that answer achieves it. Quite how he thinks that this contempt for Leave voters – including the majority in his own constituency – will play in an election is a mystery. Perhaps he believes it will carry him to victory among Labour members, and proposes to cross the bridge of Labour’s core vote hating him at a later date.
Of course, his EU policy won’t carry him to victory among Labour members; but then nothing will.
Even when Smith finally struck a resounding blow by exposing that Corbyn doesn’t know how many seats he needs to gain in order to win an election, it just bounced off. In any ordinary election – with any ordinary electorate – that would have been a devastating moment. But not in this election, with this electorate; they couldn’t care less about things like MPs, or elections, or facts, or numbers, all they want is the purity of Corbyn’s socialist essence. Their man bumbled, bent over at random intervals (apparently in search of his lost water glass) and denied the evidence of his appalling ratings, but his partisans in the audience punched the air and screamed for him nonetheless. To his target audience, he can do no wrong.
Up against such a tide of impractical illogic, Smith could run a perfect campaign and still lose. And as his absurd EU position reveals, along with other gaffes like his proposed negotiation with ISIS, his campaign is far from perfect. After weeks of trying every angle – the competence candidate, the viable Prime Minister, the exactly-like-Jeremy-but-more-presentable, the ordinary bloke, the Europhiles’ champion and even, briefly and bizarrely, the defender of Blair – to no effect, he must surely know that he is doomed.
In fact, it’s worse than that. The ballot papers went out ages ago, so the odds are that Corbyn has effectively already been re-elected. In that case, last night’s debate was simply a Bullseye-style exercise in “here’s what you could have won”. What Labour could have won did not turn out to be a delightful rotisserie kit, a carriage clock or even a vaguely able Opposition leader – instead, the screen drew back to reveal someone just as unelectable as Corbyn, but for a different set of reasons.