You know the nights will shortly be drawing in when the television mainstays that mark the non-summer months return. Putting the Saturday shower aside (Saturday being a byword for bollocks, whatever the season) this week saw normal Thursday service resumed when ‘Question Time’ returned. Always a mixed-bag depending on the blend of panellists, the programme reconvened with the autumnal evening schedule via a special debate between Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his challenger Owen Smith. The debate part, when the two men addressed each other and put one another on the spot, was actually quite good; and one could see the germ of a potentially fascinating programme. Had it not fallen under the ‘Question Time’ banner, which necessitates audience participation, this could have been the case. But every time it looked as though things were about to get interesting, proceedings were interrupted by Dimbleby and another question from an audience member.
This tactic works within the usual context of ‘Question Time’, sparking most of the programme’s best bits, particularly when the panel contains a contentious cat amongst the party pigeons, such as Starkey, Galloway or Hitchens; but in this case, as with the now-customary pre-General Election or leadership contest debates, the need for constant audience interjections stymies the politicians from taking each other to task and the end result is ultimately unsatisfactory.
Although in his introduction to this special edition David Dimbleby assured viewers the assembled audience was divided between Corbynistas, Smith supporters and a mix of other party voters, the Jezza element lived up to its bullish reputation by loudly booing Smith and enthusiastically cheering their hero. One young female audience member spoke of the studio atmosphere as being a microcosm of the party itself at the moment, going against the stereotype of the student Corbyn groupie as she did so; but the palpable hint of aggressive intimidation persisted, even if Corbyn himself was again at pains to distance himself from those who intimidate in his name, especially when it came to the sensitive subject of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. Smith seemed to face a more hostile reception than his opponent, though his insistence on demanding a second EU Referendum when the programme was coming from Oldham didn’t really work as well as it perhaps would have done had it been broadcast from London.
As is so often the case with televised ‘debates’ between two or more participants, there was a generous amount of scripted common-sense platitudes emanating from the stage that nobody with half-a-brain would dispute or disagree with. These stock statements are produced by those under the spotlight because they know they’ll take up time that might otherwise be available for possibly awkward moments where they have to resort to instant answers to questions they weren’t expecting. Owen Smith has dropped his fair share of impromptu clangers during his leadership challenge, though he managed to avoid putting his foot in it this time round.
Corbyn himself appeared far more confident in his role as incumbent leader than he regularly appears in the Commons, projecting the image of someone finally – if belatedly – comfortable doing the job he was elected to do. But his challenger also came across as less unconvincing than he did at the initial launch of his campaign, when he unwisely sought to stress how ‘normal’ he was by calling on the services of his wife and kids to emphasise that normality, a ploy reminiscent of the ‘Little Britain’ politician using his family in the same way before the press pack on his doorstep when offering a perfectly reasonable explanation for his encounters with young men on the street during the twilight hours. Having said that, one audience member was honest enough to express his absence of confidence in both men to lead Labour back into government, reflecting the opinion shared by many without a vested interest in the Labour Party. The response of Corbyn and Smith when confronted by this was to fall back on those dependable old platitudes again. When asked if the loser would accept a job in the winner’s Shadow Cabinet, Corbyn’s belief in the likelihood of a victory was mirrored in his willingness to offer Smith a post, whereas Smith made it clear he wouldn’t accept such an offer. The latter also denied a mass exodus from the party should he fail to take charge, though the audience didn’t appear to believe him.
I can’t really imagine any floating voter coming away from this QT curtain-raiser being won over by either man; the Corbynistas believe Jezza can do no wrong whatever he does next, so it didn’t really matter how good or bad he performed on the programme; and the majority of Labour MPs backing Smith are doing so because there’s nobody else for them to throw their weight behind. Non-party members probably won’t care who wins come the actual election because they don’t discern anyone capable of getting one over a far-from united Conservative Party whoever faces Theresa May across the dispatch box once the conference season is out of the way. This programme was a moderately entertaining partial glimpse into the disintegration of opposition and not much more.
© The Editor