The leadership candidates: a socialist overview

By Mohan Sen

The deadline for people to join the Labour Party in time to vote in the leadership election passed on 20 January. Constituency Labour Parties and affiliates (primarily trade unions, but also eg a range of officially registered ‘socialist societies’) have until 14 February to nominate candidates. Then members will vote on the successfully nominated candidates 21 February-14 April.

Under new rules agreed since the last leadership election, to get on the final ballot paper candidates need nominations from 10pc of MPs (21) plus either 5pc of constituency parties (33) or 5pc of affiliates by conference voting strength, two of which must be unions.

So far, the big majority of CLPs and most affiliates have not nominated. Rebecca Long-Bailey has seven CLPs and the Bakers’ Union. She is likely to get at least Unite and CWU soon. Keir Starmer is already on the ballot: in addition to 32 CLPs, he has public sector union Unison, shop workers’ union USDAW and the environmental affiliate SERA. Lisa Nandy is on too, with general union GMB, (what’s left of) the National Union of Mineworkers and Chinese for Labour, as well as seven CLPs. Emily Thornberry has three CLP nominations. (The most right-wing candidate, Jess Phillips, has dropped out and endorsed Lisa Nandy.)

So far polling suggests that the race is between Long-Bailey and Starmer – but there is a long way to go. Nandy is most definitely gaining momentum.

Who are the candidates and what do they stand for? It’s worth saying that, at the moment at least, I am not supporting any of them.

Rebecca Long-Bailey

Salford & Eccles MP (since 2015) and Shadow Business Secretary Long-Bailey is pitching herself as the Corbyn continuity candidate. She is backed by Momentum. She is clearly in a broad sense on the left of the party. She rebelled to vote against the Tories’ Welfare Bill in 2015, nominated Corbyn the same year, and supported him against the right-wing MPs’ rebellion in 2016.

Beyond that, however, Long-Bailey does not have a clear left-wing record even in the sense that Corbyn had before he became leader. A large part of her political pitch – in her campaign, and going back through her political career – is about patriotism (“progressive patriotism”, whatever that means). Having voted against Trident renewal in Parliament in 2017, she then said during her campaign that she would be prepared to use nuclear weapons as Prime Minister. She has now signed a pro-choice pledge – along with the other leadership candidates – but the pledge was only written because she created a stir by indicating to the Catholic Church during the general election she was sympathetic to limiting abortion rights.

Long-Bailey is associated with and makes a big deal about Labour’s “Green New Deal” policy. But the policy passed at Labour conference was significantly less radical than the motions submitted, and left-wing delegates who were in the compositing meeting report that she played a key role, in alliance with the GMB, in making sure that was the case. What she has argued publicly since is in turn less radical than the final composite.

She has also positioned herself as broadly more pro-Brexit than Labour’s existing policy, and despite some warm words about migrants’ rights (eg in Tribune) has made no commitments on the subject. Many of her backers have been key to the wing of the left arguing against free movement.

Long-Bailey has just announced that she is in favour of automatic ‘Open Selection’ for MPs. This is obviously good, though she and many of those backing her (including Unite) opposed open selection when it was a live issue at Labour Party conference in 2018. Beyond that her talk about democratising the party seems to involve little beyond generalities. She has not committed to making conference sovereign and is part of a leadership that has resolutely treated conference decisions with indifference.

More concerning still is who is behind Long-Bailey’s campaign. Many left-wingers are supporting her for understandable reasons – they want to see the “left” win – but she is the candidate of the Leader’s Office, ie of Stalinist apparatchiks Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray. A key figure in her operation is Alex Halligan, a well-known Stalinist who got in trouble in the national press for wearing a bad advocating the murder of Trotskyists. There are a number of similar figures involved in her campaign. More broadly, Long-Bailey has links to those on the left responsible for a deeply unpleasant and inhospitable culture and attacks on democracy in many parts of the party, for instance the shutting down of London Young Labour.

Keir Starmer

Shadow Brexit Secretary Starmer has been the MP for Holborn and St Pancras since 2015. He has consistently polled at or near the top of potential future leaders, now doubt in part because he is widely perceived as more anti-Brexit than Corbyn.

Starmer nominated Andy Burnham for leader in 2015, abstained on the Tories’ Welfare Bill, and supported the 2016 coup against Corbyn. He does not particularly seem to be a Blairite, and it may be the case that some of his left-leaning rhetoric in this election is genuine, but his voting record in Parliament is by Labour standards solidly right-wing. The only bright spot I could find when measuring him against Rebecca Long-Bailey is that he voted against Heathrow expansion when she, no doubt under the influence of the Unite leadership, abstained.

In the election itself, he has said remarkably little about policy. A lot of his campaign is leftish mood music and projecting himself as ‘statesmanlike’.

In terms of Starmer’s internationalist image, he is not all he seems. It seems to be true that he was central to pushing the leadership towards a more anti-Brexit position, for which kudos – but that doesn’t mean his position was good. At the 2018 Labour conference he took the lead in facing down attempts to get a clear anti-Brexit line; and worse still he made sure that a pro-free movement motion ended up in the bin. This was fully in line with his wider stance: around the turn of 2016-7 he advocated Labour support the ending of UK-EU free movement, encouraging Corbyn to cave in as he eventually did.

Starmer has played up his work defending various campaigners when he was a lawyer. Immediately before he became an MP, however, he was Director of Public Prosecutions. His record there was mixed to say the least. He refused to prosecute the police officers accused of killing Jean Charles de Menezes and Ian Tomlinson (though he later changed his mind on the latter when it became clear this stance was not viable). He followed this up by announcing that MI5 and MI6 agnts would not face charges for torture and human rights abuses during the Iraq war. At the height of the Cameron-Osborne war on welfare in 2013 he also issued strengthened guidelines for prosecuting “benefit cheats”.

In terms of Starmer’s backers, he has a very wide range of support from hard right to soft left and even further left. Many right-wingers are trumpeting his campaign as an opportunity to defeat the left. His top campaign staff includes figures associated with Corbyn’s first campaign, like Kat Fletcher and Simon Fletcher, but also for instance notorious Labour First organiser and virulent left-hater Matt Pound.

Emily Thornberry

Emily Thornberry, MP for Islington South since 2005 and Shadow Foreign Secretary, is in some respects not a million miles from Keir Starmer, but her history and record is somewhat more left-wing. She is very much soft left, but she was a fairly consistent pain in the arse for the Blair and Brown governments. She nominated Corbyn in 2015 and supported him against the coup in 2016 (though she abstained on the Welfare Bill). In the past she has, unlike Starmer, been against nuclear weapons – but she abstained in the 2017 parliamentary vote – and now she has told the press that as Prime Minister she would retain Trident and be willing to use it!

She is also Remain-leaning and has previously pushed the party on this, but like Starmer has equivoctaed on free movement.

Thornberry has a record on some other issues which are quite admirable – for instance, campaigning for abortion rights. She has also combined vocal support for the Palestinians with longstanding and strong opposition to antisemitism on the left. (Like all the leadership candidates she has signed up to the Board of Deputies’ ten proposals for tackling antisemitism, which in my view are not good, but at least in her case the decision doe not seem totally opportunistic.) Her other foreign policy stances have been a mixed bag – for instance she has been weak on criticising the Syrian regime.

Thornberry’s campaign has not been hugely political, mainly stressing her political stature and talents.

Lisa Nandy

Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan since 2010, was once seen as a rising star of the soft left. However, she nominated Burnham in 2015 and in 2016 resigned as Shadow Secretary for Energy and Climate Change in to support the coup against Corbyn, co-chairing Owen Smith’s leadership campaign.

With Clive Lewis failing to make the threshold of MPs’ nominations, Nandy is the only BME candidate in the election (her father is Indian) and would be the first BME leader of the party. Unlike the other three, all from some variety of working-class background, hers is pretty privileged: her maternal grandfather was Liberal leader in the House of Lords for twenty years.

Nandy’s voting record in Parliament is mixed-to-ok; though she did not rebel on the Welfare Bill, she voted against both Trident renewal and Heathrow expansion. Like Thornberry, she combines a pro-Palestinian record (she is chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East) with strong opposition to antisemitism.

She has said Labour is too much a party of placard-waving, even though in fact it does barely any on the streets campaigning.

In response to Rebecca Long-Bailey, she has explicitly come out against Open Selections.

She caused outrage by citing Catalonia, subject to brutal Spanish state repression, as a model for dealing with nationalism in Scotland.

There is a fundamental contradiction in Nandy’s campaign. On one hand she is the only candidate to come out explicitly in defence of free movement, also telling party members in Lewisham that for her the notorious “Controls on Immigration” mug was a low point for the party. On the other hand she is backed by many in the PLP and the unions who clearly interpret her narrative about reconnecting to working-class voters in small towns as meaning moving further right on crime and immigration – and she is clearly pitching to that constituency. And she is pro-Brexit, having voted in favour of the second reading of Johnson’s deal.

All the candidates have things to recommend them, from the viewpoint of a class-struggle, internationalist left, but overall it is a poor choice.

Deputy leader

I plan to write a separate article about the Deputy Leadership contest. Angela Rayner is soft left or centrist and pro-Brexit; Richard Burgon left and pro-Brexit; Ian Murray hard right; and Rosena Allin-Khan soft right and anti-Brexit. After 2015 Dawn Butler reinvented herself from Blairite-Brownite to soft left and has spoken in favour of free movement. It seems worth adding that, in addition to her working-class background, Rayner is the only one in either contest with a record as a trade unionist. She was a workplace Unison activist, then a branch secretary on full-time release, then a union official, before becoming an MP.

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