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Labour has a shot at relevance — can it grasp it? Parliament needs a serious opposition more than ever

Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Sir Keir Starmer at the leadership hustings in Glasgow on 15 February (Photo by Robert Perry/Getty Images)

Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Sir Keir Starmer at the leadership hustings in Glasgow on 15 February (Photo by Robert Perry/Getty Images)

February 18, 2020   6 mins

As Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings extend their iron grip on the government, brooking no pockets of disagreement and appointing a cabinet of almost no obvious talent but much devotion, the need for a decent opposition in Parliament has become obvious again. Almost without anyone noticing the Labour party is holding a leadership election that may in the near future provide it with some punch. Now the contest has a point.

Labour leadership contests have always had an impetus all of their own. They are always long, with tortuous rules that make them subject to surprise. Just ask David Miliband in 2010 or Andy Burnham in 2015. Under two different electoral systems the early favourites lost in elongated campaigns that threw up Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. We all know how well they turned out.

Labour’s reaction to the 2019 general election has been analysed by Lord Ashcroft in his “Diagnosis of Defeat”. Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn were the two principal causes for members deserting the party, contrary to the findings of the National Executive Committee’s report last month that exonerated the Labour leader. Among those who stayed loyal most of those polled by Ashcroft said Labour did not deserve to lose. Asked whether Labour had been an adequate opposition since 2015, Corbyn supporters gave it 6.8 out of 10. The public in general gave it only 2.9.

This disparity has also been shown in other ways: 73% of party members in the poll said anti-Semitism was exaggerated or invented, although the leadership should have done a better job in dealing with it. Amazingly, when asked who was the best Labour leader of modern times the largest vote, at 35%, was for Corbyn; over Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and John Smith. Essentially these party members seem to think that 2019 was an aberration based on Brexit.

However, they did accept that the highest priority now is to win lost voters back and win an election, and this may be the start of reality dawning. The choice between the policies and tactics of the past four years and a desire to win is now firmly on the agenda.

The 2020 leadership campaign has now reached its critical point.

The various constituencies of the party have, after different nominating phases, voted to select leadership and deputy leadership candidates for the final ballot of members. On Saturday the candidates were granted access to data on individual members and registered supporters of the party — now remarkably up to as many as 650,000 — and the battle for votes begins. That night the campaigns were already texting and calling supporters; and there are another nine weeks for official campaigning to take place.

In the deputy leadership race Angela Rayner is sweeping all before her. CLP Nominations has been collating nominations from constituency Labour parties; every night anoraks like me read the latest results. Of 640 CLPs Rayner has gathered 365. The four other candidates — Dawn Butler, with 82, the ineffable Richard Burgon, 77 , Ian Murray, 60  and Rosena Alin-Khan, 56 — are way off pace. Even with the historic vagaries of  Labour party elections it seems impossible for Rayner not to be its new Deputy Leader.

It’s worth noting that the deputy leader race has exposed a deep split within the forces that have run the Labour party in the past five years. When Momentum decided to back Rayner over Burgon it created a split between leading members of the Left such as Jon Lansman — now both chair of Momentum and campaign director of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership challenge — and those such as Laura Pidcock and John McDonnell, who seems to have reverted to a previous political ultra-Left incarnation in the past few weeks. This split will not be healed in the near future especially if Long-Bailey loses the leadership.

If Rayner is a shoo in, then the leadership at first glance looks to be equally one sided. Of the 641 nominating CLPs  374 have voted for Keir Starmer, 164 for Long-Bailey and 72 for the radical and interesting Lisa Nandy. Starmer really hit the ground running. His campaign recruited key figures from across the different wings of the party from the 2015 leadership election — Simon Fletcher and Kat Fletcher from Corbyn’s campaign and Morgan McSweeney from Liz Kendall’s campaign. They are three seasoned political operators. He has gathered wide support from unions and the affiliated societies as well as being dominant in nominations from the MPs and MEPs (in a ballot before they became redundant on 31 January). He has attracted wide ranging support across the party. If the election were held today, he would win it by a landslide. He is also a perfect unity candidate — reasonable, clear, competent, experienced, hardworking and capable of taking on Boris Johnson in opposition as well as potentially running a government. In other words, he is the anthesis of Jeremy Corbyn.

Rebecca Long-Bailey is more of an enigma. In private she is a lot warmer and funnier than in public, but she is relatively inexperienced as a political performer and has a huge problem shaking off the impression that she is the creature of the Left machine. Corbyn in 2015 and 2016 revealed unsuspected levels of charisma born of 35 years of campaigning for losing causes. He made the other new Labour candidates look boring and formulaic. Long-Bailey is trying to rally the Momentum and unite troops with policy derived from the 2019 manifesto — the Green New Deal — but it’s not quite playing, and she has the real problem of whether she can take on Johnson. Has she got the big enough political personality? Is the need for strong political leadership stronger than supporting the left project? Long-Bailey may be the wrong candidate at the wrong time for the Left.

Which leaves Lisa Nandy. On the last day of nominations Emily Thornberry failed to make the final ballot. Being the warhorse able to beat up Boris Johnson was not enough of a pitch to win support. Nandy is the opposite. Her campaign, more than any other, is rooted in policy aimed at Labour’s lost seats and economic regeneration. She has moral authority on topics such as anti-Semitism where she won the nomination of the Jewish Labour Movement while also being the Vice Chair of Labour Friends of Palestine. She has been on the back benches warning about Brexit for three years. She is surprisingly compelling but that is the problem. She is a surprise. In the race for support she has a tiny professional network and is relatively unknown.

So how does this work? The electorate is all the members and registered supporters, of whom more than 100,000 are rumoured to have joined in the past six weeks. Balloting ends on 2 April. Then the votes for all three leadership candidates are tallied by the single transferable vote method until one achieves more than 50%.

On this basis Starmer is racing ahead but there are still vagaries in this race. The front runner rarely wins. He has the disadvantage of being the last leadership candidate from London, the last man and the establishment candidate. Despite his attempts to show his own Left-leaning history as a human rights barrister does he appear to be radical enough for the party membership? He is the political adult in the room: but is that enough?

The Labour machine is still dominated by the Corbyn cabal. Those acolytes of Len McCluskey are still there: Jennie Formby as General Secretary and Karie Murphy, previously Corbyn’s chief of staff. They lurk at Labour’s HQ — and already there have been signs of meddling, with accusations against Starmer’s campaign of data breaches, and nasty attacks on Starmer’s staff from leftist websites. As he gets stronger so the attacks will grow.

Long-Bailey also has the advantage of a well-honed machine that is used to winning internal elections and, in Jon Lansman, a seasoned operator of that machine. Her disadvantages as a candidate are offset by the power of organisation. She could take this election, as did Ed Miliband in 2010, by winning as enough supporters from the trade union membership to offset Starmer’s support in Parliament and the CLPs. However, this is not an electoral college, and no one really knows how the upsurge in membership will affect this race. If she is close to Starmer in the first round of the ballot it could be a close-run thing on second preferences.

For Nandy the only way she has a chance is to get into second place in the ballot. What is clear is that the more she is seen the more support she gains. If she can beat Long-Bailey into third place, will there be enough of Long-Bailey’s support to transfer to her to help her challenge Starmer’s probable lead on first preferences? This will be the determinant for her to stand any chance other than coming a gallant third. For her it’s a race to be seen and to get to the electorate with a much smaller campaign organisation.

The good news from Labour is that the factionalism of the past five years is beginning to recede. Most of the candidates for Leader and deputy leader are capable of mounting serious opposition to the government and now at least have a window of a year or two to clean up the party by dealing with anti-Semitism and the internal chaos created by the Corbyn cabal. Boris Johnson owns Brexit and economic policy. If they go awry there may now be a Labour leadership that can take fight to him. There is all to play for in this leadership election as Labour starts its long walk back to electoral competence.

David Kogan is the author of Protest and Power: the Battle for the Labour Party, published by Bloomsbury.

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