Victoria Derbyshire seemed very anxious as Labour’s two-hour-long hustings between Owen Smith and Jeremy Corbyn wore on this morning to move the debate away from the many internal messes that the party is in (Jewish members not feeling safe any more, online abuse, the chasm between the PLP and the membership: you name it, they covered it) and onto policy. At first, it wasn’t entirely clear why the programme’s producers had been so worried about covering policy: there is barely a cigarette paper between Corbyn and Smith, and that’s exactly how the challenging candidate wants it. The only big points of disagreement are on Trident renewal and the odd £0.5bn of spending pledges for building this and that. Smith wants to make this election about competence, not policy, and to that end he is trying as much as possible to agree with Jeremy on everything in order to get a hearing from the Labour membership.
The problem with this, as well as it just not looking very credible, is that Smith fell into the trap of trying to out-Corbyn Corbyn, with fairly spectacular results. He ended up suggesting that Isis needed to be involved in peace talks:
‘Ultimately all solutions to these crises do come about through dialogue. So eventually if we are to try and solve this, all of the actors do need to be involved. At the moment, ISIL are clearly not interested in negotiating… At some point, for us to resolve this, we will need to get people round the table.’ Meanwhile the man he was trying to ape said ‘no, they’re not going to be round the table, no’.
If Smith is trying to run on a competence ticket – or more precisely, a ticket that offers a bit more competence than Corbyn – then he has seriously undermined that with these comments. He appeared nervous and lacklustre throughout these hustings, as though he has resigned himself to losing the contest. Conceding this privately is probably wise, but appearing to give up the fight and failing to make rousing speeches aimed at inspiring Labour members doesn’t do much to counter the narrative that Corbyn’s opponents have run out of ideas and fizz.