In the final Labour Party leadership debate on 14 September, Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith essentially discussed the same issues that have been at the heart of the campaign. But there was one occasion where Corbyn really left Smith lost for words.
Smith once again brings up the issue of ‘unity’
Party unity has been a big part of Smith’s argument since the very beginning, even though he himself joined the mass resignation of shadow cabinet members that sent the organisation spiralling further into disunity after the EU referendum results came in. In the final debate on 14 September, he wasn’t going to lose sight of the phrases he’s sought to repeat over and over again in recent weeks.
Responding to an audience member who’d passionately criticised the impact that former Prime Minister Tony Blair had on the Labour Party, Smith said:
The audience member then shouted out:
So why don’t you get behind your leader?
But Smith tried to deflect attention over to Corbyn, saying:
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He never got behind any of the ones we had previously. He never got behind Tony Blair, or John Smith, or Neil Kinnock.
Referring specifically to Tony Blair’s time as leader of the Labour Party (a time when Corbyn remained within the organisation in spite of serious disagreements with the leadership), Corbyn made his position very clear, saying:
In other words, on the positive legislation passed by Blair’s Labour government, Corbyn was right alongside the party leadership. There was unity on these issues.
But Corbyn also stressed the points of difference he’d had with Blair:
Where I disagreed with that government was on what I thought was its illiberal approach on anti-terrorism law. Where I disagreed with that government was on the Private Finance Initiative… And where I disagreed very profoundly with that government was on the war in Iraq and the following of US foreign policy.
That was Corbyn’s position laid bare. And a significant chunk of the debate audience clearly sympathised with it.
Corbyn had stayed in the Labour Party under Blair to push through important legislation. But he’d also stood up and questioned policies he disagreed with. In other words, he insisted on his independence – fighting for what he believed in while opposing what he didn’t.
What does ‘unity’ actually mean?
The question of political unity is an important one, and Smith seems to believe it could make him Labour leader. But does it mean unwavering support for an issue even if you profoundly disagree with it? Or does it mean uniting around the issues you have in common?
One case covered by The Canary in August says a lot about Corbyn’s approach to this question.
In 1992, under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party was defeated yet again by the Tories. Britain had lived under a controversial Tory government for 13 years, and Kinnock had now failed to beat the ruling party in two general elections. Corbyn criticised the leader for moving Labour in “a more right wing direction” but, in an interview with the BBC after Kinnock’s second electoral defeat, he said:
I think we need to have a policy debate, a policy discussion, within the party, rather than be plunged into an immediate leadership election.
Corbyn and others in the Labour Party had a very strong case for replacing Kinnock as party leader. But they preferred debate rather than division.
Which definition will Labour voters choose?
Unlike Corbyn, Smith made it clear after the Brexit vote that he favoured an immediate leadership election. Corbyn had been Labour leader for less than a year. He hadn’t lost a general election. And the ruling Conservative Party was at one of its lowest points in months.
But Smith and most other MPs believed it was an appropriate time for planting a time bomb under their own party with a divisive leadership vote.
In short, Corbyn and Smith have a very different definition of the word ‘unity’. And as the last-minute votes come in and the leadership election draws to a close, Labour members and supporters must choose the definition they agree with the most.
See the full debate below:
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