We are something like one full week into the current leadership contest and already it is descending into a VAR-style farce.
Which is to say, the candidates seem to be showing far greater interest in arguing about the rules than in arguing with each other about how best to lead the Labour Party to power.
The first hustings event took place on Saturday, watched by almost no one, and now, watched by slightly more people, the candidates are writing op-eds or otherwise telling journalists that the rules aren’t working.
At Saturday’s events, the five candidates – Rebecca Long-Bailey, Keir Starmer, Jess Phillips, Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry – were subject to a range of questions, with all of them having to answer in 40 seconds or less, and not interrogate one another’s responses.
It lent to the occasion a sort of Blind Date with Cilla Black feel, only with very thinly veiled sexual innuendo replaced with soundbites on everything from homelessness and food banks to antisemitism.
Phillips, who by her own admission struggled with the format, has now instead written an op-ed for The Guardian, decrying the format and pledging to do things differently. “What galls me the most is the triangulation,” she wrote. “The lines planned to reach different parts of the membership of the Labour party, all while talking about the end of factionalism.”
She is, she says, going to do things differently. She is, she says, “going to say what I think”.
Nandy also thinks the 40-second rule needs to go, that it is standing in the way of the “full and frank discussion” the party needs to have with itself, in this, the “most important leadership election for generations”.
What Phillips and Nandy have in common (as Phillips has admitted) is a vanishingly small chance of victory.
The only candidate currently polling beneath either of them is Thornberry, who has been more circumspect about the 40-second rule. “Formats are formats,” she said, and she, by her own view is more used to getting her point across in “30 or 60 seconds”, having occasionally stood in for Corbyn at PMQs.
There is, in a certain sense, no crime in being compelled to condense an argument to 40 seconds. The general public rarely listens to anything longer. “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime,” takes less than three seconds to say. “Get Brexit done,” less than one.
Corbyn has regularly given speeches lasting more than 20 minutes that contain not a single point of argument at all.
But the question, really, is not the length of the answers to the questions. It is whether the party is serious about not avoiding the questions it must ask itself.
Losing parties, of which Labour is now a serial one, have an unfortunate habit of getting out of sync with their own chances of renewal. Corbyn and Corbynism were comprehensively rejected by the voters, at the same time as a handful of loyal Corbynista outriders were returned to Westminster.
On Friday night, Long-Bailey launched her leadership bid with the assistance of one of Labour’s brand new MPs, the 26-year-old Zarah Sultana. Both in the maiden speech in the House of Commons and again on Friday night, Sultana took the opportunity to state without a hint of embarrassment that, “Together, we can take wealth and power from the Bullingdon boys and invest it in our communities.”
Few things could make the question facing the Labour Party clearer. Four years of Corbyn has ended with Labour voters, in Blythe Valley, Don Valley, Sedgefield and absolutely everywhere else in between voting *for* a Bullingdon boy. That is the direct cause of their dismal failure. And yet the Corbyn project still has no new tunes to spin.
The party’s own polling shows that only two people can win the contest, Starmer or Long-Bailey. Reality, in other words, or continuity Corbyn.
The candidates don’t need any longer than 40 seconds to make that choice clear. It’s blindingly obvious. The only question is whether the members want to listen. And the evidence thus far is bleak in the extreme.