The Labour Leadership Contest: All You Need to Know

Jack Ainslie takes you through the candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party.

By Jack Ainslie

After the Labour party’s disastrous election result Jeremy Corbyn has announced he will be standing down as leader. This has sparked a leadership contest with the winner being crowned on the 4th of April. MPs and MEPs have nominated candidates – with five making the cut to enter the next stage of the contest. Clive Lewis was the only contender who did not make the cut. Since nominations closed Jess Philips has also pulled out. The contest now moves to it’s next stage as candidates attempt to gain support from a certain number of the individual constituency branches of the party as well as seeking support from the unions which are affiliated to Labour. Those who succeed at this stage will make it onto the final ballot.

This is a crucial time for the Labour party. Their results in December were the party’s worst since the 1930s as many of their former strongholds in the North turned to the Tories. Corbyn’s leadership has put the party to it’s furthest left in generations to some’s despair and other’s delight. Should the party continue with the Corbyn project or move away from it back towards the centre ground? Was the election debate down to Brexit or a mixture of Brexit and Corbynism?

Whoever wins will face a challenging job. They will aim to unite a party which has seen it’s fair share of internal strife as well as trying to pivot the party on the path towards Downing Street.  They will also need to come up with answers to the pressing questions surrounding the growing clamour for a second independence referendum. The Scottish Labour Party has been viewed as moving towards a more pro-referendum position so this is certain to cause divides between Holyrood and Westminster branches.

Meet the Candidates

Rebecca Long Bailey

Long Bailey has been a loyal supporter of Jeremy Corbyn throughout his tenure. She was elected as an MP for Salford and Eccles in 2015 after a career as a lawyer and has served in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet for nearly all that time, most prominently as Shadow Business Secretary.  She has long been seen as a natural successor to Jeremy Corbyn and her relatively strong performances when subbing in for him during election TV debates did little to quell those whispers.

She has strongly defended the party’s 2019 manifesto and socialist direction under Mr. Corbyn. In the article which announced her candidacy she wrote that ‘I don’t just agree with the policies, I’ve spent the last four years writing them.’ She put the election failure down to poor campaign messaging, rather than the policies themselves. Long Bailey has also announced plans to decentralise government stating that Westminster doesn’t feel ‘much closer’ than it did when she grew up in Manchester to many voters. This includes replacing the House of Lords with an elected senate which would meet outside of London. She is viewed as one of the frontrunners in the contest and has been endorsed by the powerful group Momentum.

Whilst she may be the chosen one of a sect of the membership who feel highly energised by the new direction Jeremy Corbyn brought to Labour for others her closeness to Corbyn is a disadvantage. Whilst Long Bailey has made efforts to distinguish herself from him, the moniker ‘continuity Corbyn’ has stuck to her in these early stages of the campaign. She attracted widespread scorn when she rated his leadership “ten out of ten” in an interview though in her campaign launch admitted that the party had failed on anti-semitism as well as lightly praising Tony Blair – perhaps an effort to make a slight criticism of the Corbyn era.The question for Rebecca Long Bailey will be how can she justify continuing a policy platform upon which Labour has lost two general elections?

Keir Starmer

Sir Keir has only been an MP since 2015 (for Holborn and St. Pancras) but has risen to become the frontrunner in the contest. The University of Leeds graduate (post grad Oxford) was a high profile lawyer prior to his election. He served as the Director of Public Prosecutions between 2007 and 2013, one of the most senior legal roles in the country.

Starmer has served as the shadow Brexit secretary since 2016 despite his apparent doubts about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, having resigned from the shadow cabinet earlier that year. Despite this he has been viewed as a strong performer. However, Starmer has been seen as one of the key voices in pushing the party towards a more “remainy” stance in the general election. The policy has been widely criticised by many in the Labour party for its’ lack of commitment to a specific side and being overly complex when explaining it to voters. Whilst the policy may have been a valiant effort to please two different sides of an extremely divisive argument it contributed to the party’s defeat. Starmers’ own resolutely remain position may be pleasing for some of the party’s membership but is he the man to win Labour back the many seats they have lost in the North?

So far Starmer has given little detail on what policy he will pursue if elected leader. His campaign launch video focuses on his achievements as a lawyer in various human rights and other cases. He has positioned himself as a unity candidate who can appeal to all wings of the party. When pressed by the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg to say whether he identified more with Tony Blair or Jeremy Corbyn he replied “I don’t need someone else’s name or badge.” Whilst he is obviously not the darling of the left that RLB, he has not trashed the Corbyn era though is a more moderate choice. One of his main goals seems to be moulding the party into a cohesive opposition ridding the party of infighting. Of course, this is much easier said than done. 

Lisa Nandy

Lisa Nandy has been the MP for Wigan since 2010 and served various shadow cabinet roles until resigning in protest at Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in 2016. She studied politics at Newcastle University before undertaking a masters at Birkbeck, University of London. Her pre-parliamentary career was mostly working for various charities including as a senior policy advisor for The Children’s Society advocating for the rights of refugee children. Nandy has positioned herself as a Northern MP who knows how to win back the party’s strongholds. She was one of the key voices arguing for the Labour Party to back some form of Brexit deal believing that it would cost them votes if they were seen to frustrate leaving. This infighting has led us to ‘leaving the EU on the hardest of terms’ according to her article announcing her bid.  She said the fierce debate between Remain and Leave in Labour stopped them uniting the country around a ‘softer Brexit’. She also criticised some of Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy positions.

Nandy was seen as a rank outsider in the race but following an endorsement from the GMB Union as well as strong performances during Parliamentary meetings and a solid showing during an interview with Andrew Neil she has been elevated to the level of contender. However, she generated controversy with clumsy phrasing surrounding the Catalonian independence issue in relation to answering a question on Scotland. Whilst she has stated her words were taken out of context and it seems obvious that she would not support the brutality of the crack down in Catalonia it wasn’t a good moment for her candidacy. 

However Nandy has indicated support for some policies which may please the Labour left. She has voted against Trident renewal but has said she would support renewal accompanied with a commitment to denuclearisation. She has also indicated support for some nationalisations – such as Royal Mail. However, whilst Nandy may be an admirable media performer and one of the Labour MPs who kept her seat in the Northern rout she may struggle to win. Nandy might not be able to unite the party with many disapproving of her Brexit position and what is perceived as a lack of strong left wing policies. 

Emily Thornberry

Emily Thornberry has been the MP for Islington South since 2005 and has occupied several shadow cabinet positions most notably shadow Foreign Secretary since 2016. Prior to entering politics she practised as a lawyer, having studied at the University of Kent.  She has made her pitch as a candidate of experience having performed strongly when taking on Boris Johnson during his time as foreign secretary. Despite this she is viewed as the candidate least likely to succeed. 

Thornberry has also been seen as being one of the architects of Labour’s second referendum policy. She has been criticised in the past for having what some see as a “snobby” attitude. During Ed Miliband’s leadership she had to resign her position as Shadow Attorney General due to what many saw as a patronising tweet after a by-election. She was also accused by ex-MP Caroline Flint of calling Leave voters stupid. However, Thornberry denied this and stated she was considering legal action against Flint. This view of Thornberry as part of a ‘liberal elite’ seems to have stuck but she did have a relatively tough upbringing. After her parents divorced she lived with her mother in a council house as they struggled financially. Whilst many live this experience daily it does indicate Thornberry may not be as ‘snobby’ as some may assert.

She has indicated she may pursue policies which will tax the richest more. She has also not been a prominent supporter of Trident, generally abstaining from votes on the issue. Thornberry has praised Corbyn’s reinvigoration of the party but has criticised his handling of anti-semitism and the election campaign. This shows the dodgy middle ground that she inhabits. She is associated with the Corbyn project through her shadow cabinet positions but is also not seen as a figure of the left. This will make it very difficult for her to be elected.

All Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

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Jack Ainslie takes you through the candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party.