At the moment at least, I am not supporting any of the candidates for Labour leader. In hustings, I think, activists should ask pointed questions, and ask members to judge the candidates by their responses.
For example, no candidate has yet committed to work for wide democratic reforms in Labour’s still-largely-Blair-made structure. None has backed the Free Our Unions call for them to respect the 2019 Labour conference decision for repeal of all anti-union laws. None has said that they will seek to lead on-the-streets and industrial campaigning against Johnson.
Rebecca Long-Bailey,Salford and Eccles MP (since 2015) and Shadow Business Secretary, is pitching herself as the Corbyn continuity candidate. She is backed by Momentum.
She is 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.
However, Long-Bailey does not have a distinct left-wing record from her short time in Parliament, or from what little she did in politics before becoming an MP. Nothing like the record that, for all his drift towards the Morning Star, Corbyn did have before he became leader.
A large part of her political pitch – now, and back to 2015 at least — is about patriotism (“progressive patriotism”).
Having voted against Trident renewal in Parliament in 2017, she has 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 that 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 migrant rights (e.g. in Tribune) has made no commitment on the subject. Many of her backers have been key to the wing of the left arguing against free movement.
Long-Bailey has 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 the Unite union) opposed open selection when it was a live issue at Labour Party conference in 2018.
Most concerning is who is behind Long-Bailey’s campaign. She is the candidate of the Leader’s Office, i.e. of Stalinist apparatchiks Seamus Milne and Andrew Murray.
A long-time figure in her operation is Alex Halligan, a well-known Stalinist who got in trouble in the national press for wearing a badge advocating the murder of Trotskyists. There are a number of similar figures involved too.
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.
Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir 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, no 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 the standards of Labour since 2015, where there has been little differentiation except on Brexit) 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”.
On international issues, he is not all he seems. 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. Worse still, he made sure that a pro-free movement motion ended up in the bin. 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.
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 agents 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”.
Starmer 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 notorious Labour First organiser and virulent left-hater Matt Pound.
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 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 has previously pushed the party to be more anti-Brexit, but like Starmer has equivocated on free movement.
Thornberry has a record on some other issues which is quite admirable – for instance, 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 does 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.
She is campaigning not as any sort of left candidate, but on her claim to superior ability for confronting Johnson across the dispatch box.
Lisa Nandy, MP for Wigan since 2010, was once seen as a rising star of the soft left. Then 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.
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 pitching to a constituency 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 voted in favour of the second reading of Johnson’s Brexit deal.
Every candidate has something, somewhere, to recommend them, from the viewpoint of a class-struggle, internationalist left, but overall it is a poor choice.
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 e.g. 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 10% of MPs plus either 5% of constituency parties (33) or 5% of affiliates by conference voting strength, two of which must be unions.
For regular updates on who has what nominations, see twitter.com/CLPNominations.
Leadership candidates’ contempt for conference
In a speech billed as advocating democratisation of the Labour Party, Rebecca Long-Bailey said this, and only this, about Labour’s conference:
“On our policy making. I have always believed that it is our members and trade unions who should shape our vision, but there has to be a more open and democratic way of developing our vision.
“Trying to clunkily mesh together the wording of various motions from constituency parties in a sweaty room at conference is not dynamic and it is not using the vast wealth of talent our members bring.”
The reference is to “compositing”, the process by which hundreds of motions from constituency parties and unions are combined and sorted into a manageable number of options for full conference debate.
It is a necessary process for a large conference where motions can come from hundreds of sources. The left has never opposed compositing as such, nor should it want to.
The big problem in compositing is that Labour Party and union officials use it to bamboozle and pressure delegates into “losing” the more radical policy points in their motions.
Long-Bailey had a hard time in the Green New Deal compositing at Labour Party conference 2019. Constituency delegates were more stubborn than usual about not losing key policies (and so the compositing went on much longer than usual).
Solving that “problem” would be a step back, not forwards.
It’s not just Long-Bailey, of course. Keir Starmer has played the same role in compositing, for instance on Brexit and free movement in 2018.
In a recent interview for the Mirror, Emily Thornberry said that she did not support ending “Right to Buy”. She made no reference whatsoever to the fact — in fact she may not even know — that the last conference voted overwhelmingly to end Right to Buy.
The bit about “sweaty rooms” was the only comment on the role of conference in Long-Bailey’s speech. Only the most naive could interpret it as a wish for better-ventilated compositing rooms.
Long-Bailey’s whole wing of the left that has a clear record of disparaging the role of face-to-face democratic discussion and decision-making in order to replace it with a tightly controlled system of online “consultation” (for example in Momentum).
We should fight to make conference the genuinely sovereign decision-making body of the party.