As of right now the frontrunners for the Labour leadership are two women who serve in the shadow cabinet. Both are from Greater Manchester and, by the standards of elite-level politics, both are young. Importantly from the perspective of the party’s left-leaning membership, both were committed to Labour’s two manifestos under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, from Salford and formerly a solicitor, is Labour’s shadow secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy. The face of the party’s green industrial revolution, Long-Bailey saw her profile rise during the election – even representing the party in a televised debate. While seen by many as a potential successor to Corbyn only recently, it was John McDonnell who most actively promoted her after 2017.
Then there is Angela Rayner – who holds the shadow education brief and is expected to run alongside Long-Bailey to be deputy leader. While close to Long-Bailey and of a similar age, Rayner does not herald from the party’s left. Personable, loyal and with an inspiring back story, she avoided the herd mentality that swept up much of the party during the 2016 coup, all the more impressive since she’ll freely admit her views differ to the Labour left. Rayner has previously said that the party shouldn’t abolish grammar schools, as this would mean closing ‘good schools’, and, to the chagrin of some, was recently pictured touring a BAE factory. Nevertheless even her critics, and I am not among them, accept she could capture the zeitgeist like few others.
Both women also enjoy distinct bases of institutional support. While Rayner might enjoy a greater public profile, here she comes second best. That is because Long-Bailey will likely be endorsed by Unite – the union at the heart of the Corbyn leadership, especially after his 2016 re-election. It is primarily for this reason that Long-Bailey is viewed as the continuity candidate. As well as commanding the resources attendant with being Britain’s largest private union, Unite also feels vindicated on Brexit, having opposed the adoption of a people’s vote.
A Unison member in her former job as a care worker, Rayner is favoured by the GMB. While the credentials of both women are talked up because of their distance from the party’s remain wing – something potentially fatal for Keir Starmer, Clive Lewis and Emily Thornberry – the political operation of both Unison and GMB heavily pushed for a second referendum. Given the two unions frequently denigrated the Labour leadership for its stance on the issue, which now looks to have been short-sighted, that comes with its own problems. Buy in from the GMB, in particular, could make the operation more politically stable but also more incoherent – especially under tough conditions.
Then there is the issue of staff. Another reason Long-Bailey is being touted as a continuity candidate is because much of Corbyn’s team would be retained if she became leader. McDonnell is said to be heavily lobbying for his staff to stay in post as well – which is surprising given we don’t know who will be his replacement as shadow chancellor – but it speaks to the man’s well-known loyalty.
While retaining the same personnel could be considered an audacious move, particularly after a seismic defeat, it should be palatable to enough stakeholders to make sense. Unite retain control of the operation around the leader’s office while the GMB – a much smaller union – has its foot in the door. This complicated mix could quickly get messy however and there’s clearly a need for new ideas and a fresh approach. Labour needs its Michael Howard – to steady the ship and pick up seats next time – but its just as possible it could get an Iain Duncan Smith and sink further still.
One source told me we are already seeing a ‘stitch up’ and that the next several months could resemble a coronation. And yet one can’t help think a coronation is the last thing the party needs. As Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s head of policy, pointed out in the Guardian, the leadership has succeeded in shifting the debate on austerity and public services – but that had been achieved by the 2017 general election. This was subsequently followed by a malaise borne of strategic inertia, no narrative arc beyond austerity and a failure to enact democratic reform within the party. While the combined CV of Rayner and Long-Bailey is impressive, there is nothing to suggest that same trajectory wouldn’t persist with a continuity project. What is more, at the very moment the country becomes even more politicised, those at the top of Labour appear set on shutting the party off from the wider public. The left should have no fear of ‘centrist entryism’ – like Change UK, the surging Lib Dems and the public appetite for a second referendum it is a mirage – but timidity means it will now cut itself off at the very moment it should open up. You’ll often hear claims about wanting a million members in the party, but this reflex is why I suspect that even those saying it aren’t serious.
Something else also appears to have been lost in the last 18 months: the promise of a democratic party. For all the talk of wanting to create a member-led organisation, something Labour’s ‘democracy review’ had promised, this hasn’t happened. The nadir for that was the leader’s office parachuting favoured candidates ahead of the election – cancelling the very trigger ballots it had preferred to mandatory re-selection only a year earlier. Where members democratically chose the ‘wrong’ person, as with Sally Gimson in Bassetlaw, the NEC stepped in to replace them. This is neither a ‘new’ politics nor a democratic one.
If the next leadership persists with such instincts, it will fail. Many of the half million members the party happily points to will walk away, while those that stay will feel less inclined to participate. In the event of that, and electoral failure thereafter, the right could sweep in and decimate the left for good. A purge will likely be avoided this time, but failure thereafter could only make it all the more intense when the axe finally falls.
This is all very predictable – as was the Corbyn project’s failure once the leader himself rejected mandatory re-selection. Furthermore these conclusions, particularly on the need for mandatory re-selection, are not the result of purity but pragmatism. Within hours of winning, Corbyn’s successor will be subject to attacks from the press. While this is acceptable, (or rather inevitable) the participation of their colleagues adding a veneer of credibility is not. The day the new leadership takes office, several dozen MPs will begin to undermine them – and if political headwinds emerge, such as next year’s local elections – momentum would quickly gather. Many in the media wish to completely obliterate any Corbynite legacy after the last four years and I suspect every by-election and opinion poll will quickly be viewed as a plebiscite on the new leadership. Here you can see how another coup would unfold – unless the party adopts mandatory re-selection, the only guarantee of party discipline.
Speaking to the Guardian yesterday Starmer talked of ‘bringing the party together’ – but what McDonnell and Corbyn discovered is that in the absence of specific mechanisms that is meaningless. As a Labour member I’ll only be voting for the candidate who guarantees mandatory re-selection. That’s not because I’m indifferent to the issues that matter, but because I recognise that without it the left will not be permitted to lead at all – whether or not it wins internal elections.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media co-founder and contributing editor.