LONDON – It’s tempting to ignore the Labour Party’s leadership contest. Like a roadside accident, it almost seems indecent to look too closely and you have other places to be. Yet it’s worth slowing down to take stock.
Opposition parties in democracies aren’t some superfluous accessory. They hold the governing party to account, call attention to issues the government may overlook and promote the healthy competition of ideas. Britain’s House of Commons is designed with opposing benches precisely to underscore that battle. It doesn’t work if one set of benches is slouching toward oblivion.
Labour’s job has become a lot more difficult after three straight election defeats. The party’s first order of business as it selects a new leader is to decide why it lost so badly to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in December. But the campaign so far has been an exercise in avoidance, and the polarizing figure of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn haunts the process.
Corbyn remains the titular head until a new leader is crowned. He retains a great deal of support among the party’s loyal core: the trade unions who are key to the election of a new leader and the grassroots Momentum movement. It’s hard to have a frank discussion about his disastrous legacy when he’s still in the room.
Some of the most astute analysis of Labour’s thumping loss has come from Lisa Nandy, member of Parliament for Wigan, who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow Cabinet in 2016 over his management and her party’s Brexit position. Nandy is an outside shot for the leadership, but she has impressed with her straight talk on where the party went off the rails. Speaking about feedback from voters, she says:
“There was just a general sense that at the top of the Labour Party we don’t speak for people like them anymore, a sense we don’t have skin in the game, that we’re not rooted in those communities, and we’re just not like them, and we don’t come very often to just ask people what they think and to listen to what they’ve got to say.”
So far, the battle appears to be between shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer and shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey. Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions, has two strikes against him from the outset: He’s male and represents a London seat. Labour is intensely conscious of being the only party that hasn’t had a female leader, and also that it’s seen as too urban and out of touch with its once loyal base in northern England. He’s an establishment figure, however much he claims working-class roots.
It would be a shame if Labour voters let those factors distract them. What Starmer may lack in everyman appeal, he makes up for in intellect, integrity and respect across the benches.
Known more as a pragmatist than an ideologue, Starmer has still taken pains to show his lefty bona fides. At the Labour Party conference in the autumn, he said he couldn’t bring himself to seek private medical care or private education; that this had been drilled into him by his Labour-supporting family. He certainly comes across as sincere, but those comments struck me as a sign he’s missing something fundamental about many former Labour voters that Johnson instinctively understood: They, too, have aspirations.
While most Britons want improved public services — and are happy to pay for it, up to a point — I see no evidence that responding to inequality and poor services with less choice and competition is the way to win elections, or even the right policy. Labour’s approach feels condescending instead of uplifting and Starmer has held that off-key tune so far.
He was at his best when challenging the Tories’ Brexit deals or joining other parties to thwart a no-deal exit. But Labour’s own Brexit strategy was a muddle — trying to placate both its urban “remainer” support and working-class “leavers.” The latter preferred Johnson’s simple offer to “Get Brexit Done.” Starmer’s best hope is that the issue will be less toxic and divisive for Labour once Brexit is completed.
His chief opponent, Long-Bailey, is the “continuity Corbyn” candidate. A protege of Shadow chancellor John McDonnell and a life-long socialist, she says there is nothing wrong with the party’s hard-left economic policies and that they could even go further. “You’re as likely to see me on a picket line as you are at the dispatch box,” she says, “and you can trust me to fight the establishment tooth and nail.”
Long-Bailey’s diagnosis of the election loss has more to do with style than substance. Labour didn’t have a snappy slogan like Johnson’s Brexit one. Its compromise position on Brexit was resented by both leavers and remainers, and it wasn’t trusted on anti-Semitism. She also blames the media for attacking Corbyn. All of this may be true, but it feels like focusing on a heart attack victim’s route to work that day.
On policy, Long-Bailey wouldn’t change much. She would refocus the party on her Green New Deal, including a commitment to net zero emissions by 2030. That plan has spooked the unions, who worry that the target, as well as measures against fracking and aviation, would hurt their members. Unless Johnson abandons his own improved climate agenda, Long-Bailey’s strategy will look like too much risk for too little benefit.
As the Momentum-backed candidate, however, Long-Bailey has a large organized movement behind her with access to membership data — a definite advantage because the members vote for the leader. (Labour’s National Executive Committee ruled the other candidates can’t have the data until a week before ballots are sent out).
This race will run for a while yet. The candidates need support from at least 10 percent of Labour MPs (including members of the European Parliament), plus 5 percent of either Labour constituency parties or three affiliated unions. The list is whittled down through preferential voting until one candidate reaches 50 percent, with results announced on April 4.
The early support for Starmer suggests that many party members know a real correction is needed. But there’s enough time for Corbynistas to try to influence the vote in favor of their candidate. That will hardly bother Johnson, but it should make the rest of the country deeply uneasy.
Therese Raphael writes commentary on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion.