In late spring 2007 I sat in a small dark function room as three men — John McDonnell, Michael Meacher, and Gordon Brown — told the attendees why they should be the ones to succeed Tony Blair as Labour leader. The Fabian Society debate in London was short-tempered in several spots, with all three making light effort to conceal their mutual antipathy. Gordon Brown, the favorite, was well aware that his path to the leadership was less of a campaign and more of a straightforward coronation.
Several weeks later, in a far grander and better-lit room in the Midlands, I watched the first of ten “hustings” while working for the venue at my university. Brown, the only candidate remaining on the ballot after both Meacher and McDonnell failed to gather the needed forty-five nominations from members of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), was interviewed rather than facing anything approaching a debate. A heckler in the audience chanted for Brown to “Get the troops out” of Iraq before being ejected, while Brown defended his decision to back the disastrous war. The whole contest was dry and farcical, with Brown duly elected leader unopposed before going on to lose the 2010 general election.
This time, at least, the choices are wider: having been duly thumped in the election, the PLP nominated five candidates for leader in 2010, four in 2015, and five again this year, matched by the deputy candidates. But the run up to the first stage of nominations went to the wire again, with Clive Lewis withdrawing after failing to secure enough support, and members lobbying their MPs to back candidates who were struggling to reach the 10 percent threshold. The frustration, particular for younger members, remains the gatekeeping nature of the nominations process: candidates must now secure a required threshold of Constituency Labour Party (CLP), trade union, or affiliated body support, before the ballot officially opens, but the PLP hold the power to prevent candidates from making it past the first stage of nominations — and as the 2016 mass resignation showed, the political leanings of the overwhelming body of MPs still remain to the right of the wider membership.
After a bitter winter election, many members understandably feel they deserve a say in who becomes leader and the direction of the party.
Race in particular was an issue many activists did not feel was being addressed properly: while the gender of the candidates in the final line up for both positions left men in the minority for once, the struggle to get both Dawn Butler and Rosena Allin-Khan through the first round frustrated many members, who lobbied both Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner to encourage their supporters to nominate other candidates even while publicly declaring support for the two current favorites to win. Several MPs did so, and stated either that they were against the PLP nomination procedures altogether or preferred to give members greater choice. After the close of nominations, two candidates — Jess Philips for leader, and Ian Murray for deputy leader — failed to secure the nomination of a single nonwhite MP, despite one in five PLP members identifying as a person of color.
So far, so tempestuous. But the Momentum ballot of its 40,000 members also caused a schism: in a statement explaining the process, Momentum stated that their National Coordinating Group (NCG) had decided to back Rebecca Long-Bailey for leader, “as the only candidate committed to advancing the transformative agenda established by Jeremy Corbyn and further democratisation of the party,” and in a slightly more muted tone Angela Rayner as “the strongest candidate to work with Rebecca to help build a winning coalition within the Labour Party and wider society.” For each candidate, members were asked to vote yes or no to endorse the women: both succeeded, Long-Bailey with 70 percent of those who voted, while Rayner scraped by with 52%. Both now receive Momentum’s official endorsement and access to their databases for campaigning.
Labour leadership election procedures are already complex and arduous, and some viewed the process for nominations by the left-wing campaigning group Momentum — whose leadership backed Long-Bailey and Rayner and then submitted the decision to an up-or-down vote of members — as a stitch-up. But winning Momentum’s backing, which was officially announced today after the poll of the group’s membership, remains an early and necessary victory for Long-Bailey. And the most recent polling has caused paroxysms amidst the British media classes and hyper-vocal online centrists, as she has now taken the lead in polling after Starmer was earlier considered a firm favorite. Starmer may be considered “safe” by some, but also far too triangulating and bland for many more, it seems. In the end, Corbyn’s past was used against him extensively, in a manner that made it impossible to rebut the endless media smears: all the while his policies remained popular. Long-Bailey represents a similar strand of the party, but with a shorter, less contentious history that opponents will find more difficult to smear; many have seen through the sexist, classist, anti-Irish and anti-Catholic attacks leveled against her, and she was heavily responsible for the Green Industrial Revolution plan Labour laid out.
The nomination procedures have been contentious and created the impression of a left in disarray. But the reality is that the early stages of the process, by their administrative tedium, inevitably cause infighting and amplify factionalism. The actual voting period for members is far longer and much less fraught: candidates now have more time to actually lay out policy directions. Compared to the grimly dire situation of 2007, the Left remains in a better position than McDonnell and others found themselves mired in. Starmer will have to prove to members and registered supporters that he is more than simply a straightforward centrist to win, and already some of the attacks on Long-Bailey and others are easily seen through by the public, whether they focus on her looks, the fact she lives in a house, her husband or imagined husband, or most ludicrously, whether her surname is hyphenated.
All candidates now have to campaign to members and registered supporters, attend hustings where they have actual opponents, and properly set out their stalls, clarifying whether they hold socialist values, or think a return to Soft Blairism would solve everything, how they plan to fight racism and social and economic inequality, and deal with the crises in the National Health Service and housing. Simultaneously, Boris Johnson and his government will be facing their first tests of government with further Brexit negotiations, the reprisal of devolved government in the north of Ireland, and a general election in the Republic.
How candidates respond, and how united the membership remains around each candidate matter far more than initial PLP nominations — and it is crucial to remember that the immediate favorites in both the 2010 and 2015 leadership elections went on to lose after the waging of long campaigns and the tallying of the final membership and union votes. Anyone who claims they know who will win is lying, but the left candidate is still edging ahead at this early stage.