In the wake of Labour's defeat in the General Election the party's so-called moderates have the smell of blood in their nostrils. But which new Leader best embodies their hopes?
‘I didn’t see that coming at all. Feel like I’ve been hit by a truck.’
It was 10.14 pm on Thursday 12 December and I had just received a text from my daughter in Liverpool. Like tens of thousands of us watching our TV screens in our homes, pubs or at counts she had just seen the results of the exit poll confirming that Labour had lost the 2019 General Election by enough seats to suggest the Tories could be in power for a decade.1 It was going to be a long and painful night. The potential losses were obvious, as were some of the consequences.
As the results unfolded the ghosts of Labour Past drifted into the TV studios. They had one clear message: yes, Brexit had been a factor in Labour losing but the real culprits were Labour’s ‘hard left’ and its figureheads, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.
On the BBC, Andrew Neill told the Shadow Chancellor ‘It’s over for you and Mr Corbyn,’ demanding to know when they would stand down. According to Neill they had ‘dragged Labour too far left’; if elected they were ‘going to spray money around like confetti, most of it borrowed’. As a consequence the voters had rejected their offer of ‘a hard-left government’.
McDonnell was the first and last BBC studio guest supportive of the Corbyn project.2 In four hours of coverage that followed the voice of Labour would be ‘represented’ by Caroline Flint, Kate Hoey, Gareth Snell and Ayesha Hazarika. It was the kind of 'balanced' reporting that we've come to expect from the BBC.
ITV was a little better. While it had former MP Alan Johnson among its guest pundits it also spoke to Owen Jones, Ash Sarkar and Jon Lansman who, despite their obvious disappointment, offered more nuanced analyses.3 Perhaps the clearest indication of what was to come, however, was when Johnson and Lansman found themselves sitting side by side.
In response to some initial points by Lansman, Johnson erupted. Corbyn was a disaster on the doorstep. Everyone knew he couldn’t lead the working class out of a paper bag, said the man who ostensibly led the Labour Party’s ‘Remain’ campaign in 2016. ‘Now Jon’s developed this Momentum group, a party within a party, aiming to keep the purity… the culture of betrayal goes on. You’ll hear it more and more over the next couple of days as this little cult get their act together. I want them out of the party. I want Momentum gone.’
The Bitterites’ revenge
In the following days and weeks the Bitterites, as John Prescott aptly dubbed them, followed Johnson’s lead.4 Some even applauded the Conservatives’ victory. Inevitably, among those who had appeared supportive of the Corbyn project there were some who decided to tack right. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, for example, coupled her criticism of Corbyn with the demand that senior staff associated with his leadership should also go.5
What was the aim of Johnson’s vitriolic outburst? At his election count on Friday morning Corbyn had announced that he would step down. In a BBC interview on the Saturday, McDonnell followed suit. But as important as these trophies were for Labour’s right-wing there was an even bigger goal they had in their sights: to reverse the programmatic shift that has taken place under Corbyn and return Labour to a mainstream reformist agenda, one of ameliorating the worst excesses of British capitalism — what our American cousins call ‘incrementalism’ — rather than seeking systemic change.
It was Tony Blair who spelt this out most clearly in a speech made on 18 December. This is not about Jeremy Corbyn as a person, he said:
I have no doubt he is someone of deeply held and sincere beliefs, who stayed true to them under harsh attack. But politically, people saw him as fundamentally opposing what Britain and Western societies stand for. He personified an idea, a brand of quasi-revolutionary socialism, mixing far-left economic policy with deep hostility to Western foreign policy, which never has appealed to traditional Labour voters, never will appeal and represented for them a combination of misguided ideology and terminal ineptitude that they found insulting.
But Blair’s speech6 wasn’t just an appeal for Labour to return to some new iteration of the Third Way. It also contained a warning of the consequences of ignoring his advice.
This part of his speech has received less attention than the excoriation of Corbyn and his team, but it reiterates an important theme first set out during Blair’s time as Labour Leader: the need to heal the historic rift between Labourism and Liberalism to forge a new ‘progressive’ force in British politics. For Blair this historic split was the political equivalent of original sin, with long-term deleterious consequences:
In the last century with the Labour Party and Liberals separated, Tories have been in power much longer than the opposition, including winning eight out of the last 11 elections, whereas in the years of Tory/Liberal Party competition, the Liberals were ahead.The Labour Party became reliant on traditional working-class organisations and constantly pulled towards a socialism which blunted at crucial moments its appeal to the aspirant working class. It had its Liberal wing represented by the likes of Roy Jenkins, but it was always viewed with some suspicion. The traditional left and right of the party — Bevin and Bevan — were themselves often uncomfortable bedfellows, but they united around: Labour as a party of government, parliamentary not revolutionary politics, pro-Nato and the Transatlantic alliance, and within the mainstream of European socialist and social democratic politics.
If this was just another dubious history lesson we could quickly move on. But Blair goes on to issue both a warning and a challenge.
First the warning:
This is a moment where either we use the lessons of defeat to build a progressive, modern political coalition capable of competing for, winning and retaining power; or we accept that the Labour Party has exhausted its original mission and is unable to fulfil the purpose for which it was created.
And then the challenge:
First, there should be a parallel debate in and out of the Labour Party about the future of progressive politics, how it is reconstructed and reshaped into a winning coalition. This should include Labour, traditional left and right, the Lib Dems, those disenchanted with both main parties and those not at present engaged in any party. It must be a big tent debate, open and frank.
In essence this is a call for a new political party of the centre as a means of isolating the ‘non-traditional’ left altogether and through first-past-the-post (FPTP) forcing it to the margins if not out of the parliamentary system.7 But, for the moment at least, the hopes of Blair and the bitterites are invested elsewhere.
The result of the 2019 General Election was both a defeat for Labour and a defeat for the Labour left. Its immediate consequence was to reignite the right-wing campaign to regain control of the Labour Party and steer it rightwards. But there’s an obvious problem here. A full frontal assault on Corbyn and Corbynism is fine for the TV studios and opinion pages but given two overwhelming wins for Corbyn in the Leadership elections of 2015 and 2016 something more subtle is required in the party itself.8 Any candidate standing on a platform that rejects outright Corbyn and Corbynism is simply unlikely to win.
This is where all modern day politicians owe great debt to the ancient Greeks. Who doesn’t know the story about how after a fruitless 10-year siege of the city of Troy the Greeks hit upon the idea of hiding a band of warriors inside a wooden horse — ostensibly a symbol of peace — only for them to break out in the dead of night and open the gates of the city to the rest of the Greek army? Centuries later the Trojan horse has become a symbol of political subterfuge.
Look at the candidates now left contesting the Labour Leadership and ask yourself two very simple questions: who is most committed to securing and building on the organisational and political gains of the last four years and who does Labour's right-wing see as its Trojan horse?9
The answer to the first question is, I believe, obvious: Rebecca Long-Bailey.10 This is not to label her as ‘continuity Corbyn’ — which is merely an attempt to drape her in defeat — as she isn’t. But she’s clearly someone who is willing to defend and build on the major gains of the Corbyn years. Her election, however, is by no means guaranteed.11 Which brings us to the second question.
Invariably in the course of a major defeat — which the General Election was — some of the gains of the previous period will be reversed, and some of those who pioneered them will be among the first victims of the backlash. In their place it is often second rank ‘leaders’ in league with former opponents of change who come to the fore, embodying the hope of returning to ‘business as usual’. The immediate goal for Corbyn supporters in these circumstances is clear: to hold the line and regroup so that the overall objective — a radical, transformative Labour government — remains viable. Allowing ourselves to be distracted from this task merely hands victory to the ‘restorationists’.
The Trojan horse
Whatever the appearances to the contrary this is a two-horse race.12 The bookies favourite to replace Jeremy Corbyn is Sir Keir Starmer, a man whose whole political career — as his title might suggest — is clothed in compromise. This isn’t to dismiss the important legal work Starmer has done over the last 30 years, but is based on what he has done since becoming a Labour MP in 2015.
As is now well-documented Starmer did not support Corbyn for Leader first time round, instead voting for Andy Burnham.13 In 2016 he joined the coup aimed at replacing Corbyn that followed the EU referendum. While pivoting left in the leadership election campaign on issues such as tax he has emphasised that the political baseline he will build on will be the 2017 rather than the 2019 election manifesto.14 This initial distinction wasn’t lost on George Parker of the Financial Times:
In an apparent attempt to woo Labour members, Sir Keir has insisted he had a working class upbringing, has highlighted how he provided free legal advice to striking workers, and warned the party not to “trash” Mr Corbyn’s record. So far his strategy appears to be working… But Sir Keir has also started to distance himself from Mr Corbyn’s disastrous 2019 election campaign: for example, only naming “rail” when asked which privatised industries he thought should be renationalised. He refused to commit to taking energy, water and postal services back under state control.
Adroit appointments to his campaign team — which includes former Corbyn adviser Simon Fletcher, Matt Pound of Labour First and the former private healthcare lobbyist Ben Nunn — suggest that Starmer is resurrecting ‘triangulation’ even before moving into the Leader’s office. And then there’s the fact that he’s credited with having relentlessly pushed in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) for that vexatious second referendum that sealed Labour’s electoral fate.15
All of this has left many on the left of the party understandably eyeing Starmer and wondering what the wooden exterior really hides. Is he the self-effacing radical that can both carry the flame of Corbynism and unify the party or is there an unpleasant surprise lurking inside? With what’s left of Progress and Labour First behind many of his CLP nominations the left has every reason to be concerned.
But if it is a two-horse race what of the other runners? Well, as ever, there is personal ambition. A strong showing this time round can confirm the also-rans as serious challengers and at the very least boost their chances of Shadow Cabinet posts. More critically for those who want to bury Corbynism, however, is the need to offer at least one candidate to the right of Starmer that will both help boost Starmer’s centre-left credentials while putting pressure on him from the outset to adapt to their agenda. Finally, if neither Long-Bailey nor Starmer win on the first count then the transfers from any outlier could determine who crosses the finishing line.
Is this fanciful? Well, currently the best indicator we have of where the race is at are two opinion polls — the LabourList/Survation poll published on the 16 January and a YouGov poll published two days later — as well as voting details from some of the CLP nomination meetings that have taken place.16
Both the Survation and YouGov polls should be read with caution as they are now a month out of date and the polling methodologies were far from perfect. Survation surveyed 3,835 Labour members between 8 and 13 January 2020 via LabourList’s email distribution database. Data were then weighted to the profile of party members by age, sex, and UK region, with targets derived from Labour membership composition data, 2016. At the time of the survey Clive Lewis and Jess Phillips were still in the race. Finally, a third (34%) of respondents said they were currently undecided.
Of those who knew the candidate they would vote for 42% ranked Long-Bailey first and 37% Starmer. But what happens next is critical. According to Survation’s analysis:
When looking at where people’s second preferences go, Keir Starmer is the candidate who gains most with three-fifths of those who selected Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips or Emily Thornberry first then selecting Keir Starmer second. Rebecca Long Bailey only gains from those who selected Clive Lewis first…Amongst the group who said they were undecided, Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey are neck and neck with 35% ranking Starmer first and 34% doing the same for Long Bailey. Among those who said they knew who they would vote for, only 32% said they were completely certain their preferences (10 out of 10) wouldn’t change.
So according to Survation Long-Bailey and Starmer are or were out in front and there is very little between them.
However the YouGov poll gives a completely different picture. This surveyed 1,005 Labour Party members and its headline finding was that Starmer would win on the final round by 63% to 37%. However, this is a much smaller sample and only includes one part of the electoral college, which consists of members, registered supporters and members of affiliated organisations including trade unions. Also, the underlying assumption is that all five candidates make it through to the third and final round, which we now know wasn't the case. The one similarity it has with the Survation poll is that Starmer is carried over the line with second, third or fourth preferences from Thornberry, Nandy and Phillips supporters.
This trend is also borne out in those CLP nominations meeting we know of where second and third preferences have been crucial in deciding the final outcome. But once again it’s important to understand that many of these meetings are attended by only a small number of members. In the case of my own — Birmingham Perry Barr — for example, the attendance just reached the required quorum of five per cent.
Of course all this can change.17 Many members and supporters have still to decide who they will vote for in the third and final round, which begins on 24 February. But the left has a challenge if Long-Bailey is to win both in persuading non-Corbyn supporting and Corbyn-supporting voters to give her their backing. Debunking the myth of Starmer as a guardian of Corbyn’s programmatic legacy is part of that.
The choice of Deputy Leader, where three Corbyn-supporting candidates — Richard Burgon, Dawn Butler and Angela Rayner — are standing, is more complicated.18 Not least because most members justifiably see any of these as a vast improvement on Tom Watson, a ‘deputy’ who spent most of his time trying to remove the Leader.
The front-runner is clearly Rayner who not only has the backing of Long-Bailey but has unofficially been adopted by the centre-right and right as Starmer’s running mate. The choice both boosts Starmer’s ‘centre-left’ credentials and offers his supporters a gender-balanced ticket even if it further delays the day when Labour elects its first female Leader. Rayner currently has the backing of several key affiliates including the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Unison, GMB, USDAW, Aslef and Community.19 Momentum also came out narrowly in favour of Rayner, after its National Coordinating Group (NCG) split over who to support. The organisation’s subsequent ‘yes or no’ membership ballot, designed to seal the deal, was widely criticised as ‘undemocratic’, including by its ex National Organiser, Laura Parker.20 Many Momentum members will ignore the recommendation. This doesn’t mean that Momentum’s extensive database won’t be used to push the Long-Bailey/Rayner ticket, but that in practice seasoned activists will decide for themselves. And, as the recent West Midlands mayoral selection shows, what Momentum says increasingly doesn’t hold.
Many, myself included, will vote for Burgon in preference to Rayner. He’s seen as a safer pair of hands and someone who is wholeheartedly committed to Corbyn’s legacy. As well as being backed by key figures from the Corbyn era — including John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Ian Lavery — he is endorsed by among others Unite, BFAWU, FBU and the Socialist Education Association. Burgon is also the Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs and has the support of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), the historical torch-bearer of the left among rank-and-file members. His tough stance in the Deputy Leadership debates and on policy areas such as the nationalisation of key services has also endeared him to many on the left. So too has his decisions not to sign the ’10 pledges to end the Antisemitism Crisis’ issued by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and his support for Open Selections.
The third contender is Butler, who like her opponents served in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet — in her case as Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities. She has already made it to the final stage of the contest having received nominations from more than the requisite five per cent (33) of CLPs. However, so far, she has only managed to win the backing of one affiliate: Chinese for Labour. She also declined to sign the ’10 pledges to end the Antisemitism Crisis’ and is obviously attracting support from across the Labour spectrum as the only BAME candidate standing in the elections.
So why out of these three have I chosen to vote for Burgon? A major consideration for anyone in a constituency like mine — Birmingham Perry Barr — has to be an absolute commitment to democratising the Labour Party and that means, among other things, support for Open Selections.21 As the experience of the last four years has shown once elected many Labour MPs consider themselves free to act and vote without any reference to the views of party members locally or nationally. Anyone who believes that the antics of these MPs between 2015 and 2019 played no part in Labour’s defeat is disingenuous at best. A mass, democratic Labour Party plays havoc with the personal aspirations of these MPs who don’t want to see these jeopardised by the adoption of radical policies at home or abroad.
A fresh offensive
Now we are already hearing the same warnings from Labour’s right-wing. In the last week or so a string of stories have appeared in the mainstream media suggesting that a significant number of Labour MPs are preparing to quit the party in the event of Long-Bailey being elected Leader.22 The timing of this is not accidental. CLP nominations for Leadership and Deputy Leadership candidates closed on Friday 14 February. The online ballot for both positions opens on Monday 24 February and runs until 2 April. Despite Starmer’s considerable lead in CLP nominations — 368 to 159 — his assorted supporters know that under Labour’s One-Member-One-Vote (OMOV) system this doesn’t guarantee him victory. Some on the right hope that resurrecting the spectre of a further right-wing split will help win over demoralised members prepared to accept unity at any price.23
Some dismiss this threat as a bluff and point to the fate of those Labour MPs who quit Labour in February 2019 to form Change UK. But as last year’s General Election shows there is no limit to what some MPs will do to frustrate the election of a left-wing Labour Leader. Anyone who joined the party in the belief that it is for the membership to decide these issues now has to ensure that democracy prevails. And that means getting the vote out for Long-Bailey and Burgon. You can register to support their campaigns at rebeccaforleader.org and richard4deputy.com
1. Of course no one can predict the events of the next 5-10 years. Margaret Thatcher’s Poll Tax was first floated in a Green Paper in 1986. Resistance to it led to her resignation in November 1990.
2. A Tweet by Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon suggesting the result was due to ‘a Brexit election’ was described by Laura Kuenssberg as ‘the line for Corbyn loyalists’ while Burgon was dismissed as ‘part of the Corbyn tribe’.
3. Johnson immediately targeted Corbyn as the main cause of the party’s defeat. The Corbynistas would say that victory was ‘a bourgeois concept’, he absurdly claimed, much to the delight of fellow studio guests Ed Balls and George Osborne. ’The only goal for true socialists is glorious bloody defeat’.
4. The list of Bitterites is lengthy and includes such luminaries as Jack Straw, Tony Blair, Lord Peter Mandelson, Alistair Campbell, Kim Howells, Stephen Kinnock, Caroline Flint, Lord Iain McNicol, Jess Phillips, Tom Watson and Harriet Harman.
5. https://inews.co.uk/news/politics/top-jeremy-corbyn-aides-pay-price-general-election-disaster-emily-thornberry-1346062 You need look no further as to why she is now out of the race.
6. The full speech, which never addresses why 10.2 million people chose to vote for this ‘brand of quasi-revolutionary socialism’, can be read here: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/12/tony-blair-s-speech-future-labour-and-progressive-politics-full-text
7. Blair’s despair at the historic split between Labourism and Liberalism is shared by his old strategic adviser Philip Gould. In ‘The Unfinished Revolution: How New Labour Changed British Politics For Ever’ he writes: ‘The split between the Liberal and Labour Parties not only led to divided progressive forces, it led to divided intellectual traditions, separating Liberalism, with its emphasis on individualism and tolerance, from Labourism, which stressed solidarity and social justice. The result left Labour as a dogmatic, statist party, ignoring and marginalising the core liberal concepts of individual responsibility, self-reliance and civic rather than state action.’ (p 392)
8. Jeremy Corbyn won the 2015 leadership contest with 251,417 votes, 59.5% of the votes cast. In 2016 he won again, this time with 313,209 votes, 61.8% of the votes cast. In 2015 there were four contenders, in 2016 just two.
9. Of course critics of Corbyn will say this is the wrong question and counterpose to it, ’What does Labour need to do to get re-elected?’. Blair’s speech provides the scaffold and justification for what he says is essential: ‘Labour as a party of government, parliamentary not revolutionary politics, pro-Nato and the Transatlantic alliance, and within the mainstream of European socialist and social democratic politics.’ This stance is presented as an immutable feature of the British working class, part of its DNA, rather than as an expression of the dominance of ruling class ideology, loyally promoted in the British labour movement by right-wing social democrats like Blair. It has led to the demise of traditional social democratic parties throughout Europe.
10. I base this judgement on her article in Tribune, which can be read here: https://tribunemag.co.uk/2020/01/rebecca-long-bailey-labour-leadership-socialism, her more recent article in the Guardian, which can be read here https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/16/power-people-labour-party-voters-democratic-revolution and her performances in the Leadership hustings so far. This doesn't mean that I agree with every word Long-Bailey speaks or writes.
11. We can expect all the venom of the MSM, the so-called soft-left and right-wing of the Labour Party and those on the left who defect to be turned on RLB. There’s already been some evidence of this citing her appearance and, more obliquely, her Catholicism.
12. Jess Phillips even agreed with this. In a piece for the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/19/hustings-labour-leader-jess-phillips) she wrote: ‘Ready for some more honesty? The likelihood that anyone but Keir Starmer or Rebecca Long-Bailey is going to win is, well, pretty low. Shock horror!’
13. Burnham has called for a return to Labour’s ‘mainstream tradition’. While he has been coy about who he will support as Leader his criticism that ‘Labour is too London-centric’ has led many to suggest he’s backing Lisa Nandy.
14. Cataloguing Starmer’s political positions isn’t easy as they shift left the stronger the Long-Bailey challenge becomes. On renationalising core industries/services his programme nows includes a pledge headed ‘Common Ownership’, which states: ‘Public services should be in public hands, not making profits for shareholders. Support common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water; end outsourcing in our NHS, local government and justice system.’ A Guardian headline in response to his tax pledge caught the essence of his campaign strategy: ‘Starmer shifts left in attempt to crowd Long-Bailey out of Labour contest’.
15. Oliver Eagleton’s more detailed analysis of Starmer’s political history can be found at https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/4555-the-case-against-keir-starmer
16. The results of the Survation poll can be found here: https://www.survation.com/labour-leadership-race-not-a-done-deal/ A summary of the YouGov poll can be found here: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2020/01/18/keir-starmer-beats-rebecca-long-bailey-63-37-secon I have not included a more recent Ipsos Mori poll as this is a survey of the general public and not of those entitled to vote in the Labour Leadership elections.
17. The Labour Party has maintained a running total of nominations for stages 1 and 2 of the election here https://labour.org.uk/people/leadership-elections-hub-2020/ This was updated at 5.30pm on weekdays. Starmer, Long-Bailey and Nandy have qualified for the final stage of the contest whereas Thornberry failed to reach the threshold. Phillips quit the race early on and a day after doing so it was reported that she would be voting for Starmer as her second preference. A member of her team was more frank saying Phillips would "do whatever she can to shore up the candidate who can beat Rebecca Long-Bailey”.
18. Just how complex is illustrated by their voting records on several key issues as shown here: https://labourlist.org/2020/01/how-each-labour-deputy-candidate-has-voted-on-key-issues/
19. Community was formed in 2004 when the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation and the Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trade Union merged.
20. On 11 January she tweeted: “Although I am pleased Momentum’s governing body accepted the principle of balloting its members on the leadership, I’m sorry they seem to have decided in advance what the answer is. Members should be able to choose from all Leader & Deputy candidates.”
21. I’ll return to the question of Open Selections in a future post as in and of themselves they don’t guarantee a democratic choice. My point here is that they are preferable to either the current trigger ballot or the use of NEC selection panels.
22. 'Up To 50 MPs Preparing To Quit Labour' If Rebecca Long-Bailey Wins Leadership was the headline in the Huffington Post of 8 February. Versions of this story then appeared on PolticsHome and in the Independent and Express among others.
23. Further, that is, to the right-wing split in February 2019 that led to the formation of Change UK.