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On Labour, leadership, and the Labour leadership (part III): And the winner is …

Craig Berry

10.2.2020

So far (part I; part 2) this essay’s outline of a prospective governing project for Labour has pointed to the value of Lisa Nandy’s account of Labour’s current predicament. Yet it seems unlikely now that Nandy will win the leadership contest. This final post will consider how Labour’s next leader can traverse a series of strategic dilemmas – which will be different for each candidate – to put the party back on a path to power.

Which candidate is best placed to build a governing project for Labour, with the radical policies now required at is heart? The thing is, I am not convinced the leadership election is really going to tell us. Like most successful Prime Ministers, both Keir Starmer and Lisa Nandy are policy-lite. Starmer ostensibly accepts the 2019 manifesto; as he must, because his association with Corbyn means he will struggle to outflank his rivals on the right. Nandy has not criticised any of its policy offers per se – but nor has she endorsed any in a substantive manner. Nandy can win votes on the left, but cannot risk losing votes on the right in the process.

Let me address the Rebecca Long-Bailey candidacy before returning to the main thrust of the essay. While in my ideal world Labour would be led by a left-wing woman from a working-class background, it is also the case that in my ideal world, the party would be led by someone who understood at the time what was so politically and morally toxic about the court politics and ideological blind spots of Corbynism’s particular brand of left. Moreover, it is evidently not sustainable electorally for Labour to seek to construct a new governing project from the rubble of 2019. The defeat was too severe, and clemency elusive. However unfair and simplistic this verdict (and however much it is framed by an unfriendly media establishment), potential voters, and most of the necessary components of a new governing project, will not be impressed unless Labour acknowledges that something other than so-called ‘continuity Corbynism’ is now required.

Of course, no leadership pitch is ever going to be perfect in all regards. The most important argument in favour of continuity Corbynism is Labour’s current activist base. It may be concentrated in the wrong places, and its deficiencies exposed in 2019. However, assuming the anti-Semitism problem can be definitively addressed, it will also be an essential component of Labour’s next governing project. The left has long talked about building an extra-parliamentary movement. Corbynism has made a start, but it is a generational mission, only partly underway. Making the wrong choice now, regarding the parliamentary leadership, places this broader agenda in jeopardy if it increases the distance between Labour and the working-class communities it must seek to mobilise to govern.

If Labour’s next story starts, as the media will ensure it does, with an implicit sermon on why lots of people were wrong to switch off from the last story, then they will switch off harder.

Ironically, John McDonnell might have represented a far more credible continuity candidate than Rebecca Long-Bailey, able to present himself as both a cleaner break from Corbyn personally because his political reputation has been forged independently of his friend, and a place-holding leader intent on unifying the hard and soft left and ushering the party more gently into a post-Corbyn era. Long-Bailey might then have been given the space she needs to accumulate her own political capital for a future run. A similar dynamic might have been evident had Corbyn resigned immediately, allowing for a change of tone under an interim leader, with a leadership election taking place later in 2020 once the wounds of 2019 had begun to heal.

Corbyn and co. did not propose anything so unpalatable that it could not be repackaged as mainstream by the next leader – indeed part of Labour’s problem in 2019 was that it pitched an ostensibly radical package of reforms while failing to address the austerity measures which have devastated communities in Britain’s less prosperous towns and cities. There is, of course, the danger of repeating the half-hearted, neither-here-nor-there radicalism of the Ed Miliband era. In hindsight, while Miliband and Corbyn made quite different pitches for power (albeit based on a similar policy platform), it is apparent that neither were able to construct a coherent or durable governing project through which voters could appreciate how their respective governments would conduct themselves, irrespective of what might have been in the manifestos (which are hardly widely-read).

Having failed to nurture a shared understanding between party, programme and voters, Miliband’s instinctively inclusive approach – seeking to synthesise the Blairites, Brownites, Blue Labour and the left – landed as uncertainty, even weakness. And Corbyn’s moralistic approach landed as an unwillingness to genuinely absorb the perspectives of those whose rather different experiences of life, Britain and social class might have led them to an alternative political ethic to his own.

One of the key takeaways here is that Labour does not simply need a new leader, it needs new leaders, plural. It leads me to the conclusion that Labour obviously needs both Starmer and Nandy in prominent roles, stewarding the party and appealing for votes UK-wide. Helpfully, Angela Rayner’s likely election as deputy leader means some of the policy and organisational successes of the Corbyn era will be weaved into what comes next too. I would like to conclude that it does not really matter who is number one, but I cannot, because it really does. But whoever is leader, the other will need to be the de facto number two within the shadow cabinet. If Starmer and Nandy have not already had their Granita moment, then getting something in the diary sharpish might be advisable.

Even if Starmer wins (and, for that matter, even if Long-Bailey wins), Labour’s next story clearly has to have Nandy’s stamp on it. As a matter of principle, it has got to give life to a project that combines concerns about the so-called ‘left behind’ with those regarding the racialised nature of inequality in Britain’s cities. Labour also needs an agenda based on an understanding of the causes of these problems, including the destructive shift in capitalist accumulation, as well as New Labour’s inadequacies. Corbynism was rooted intellectually in traditions which bred complacency about the need for working-class engagement – but the Labour left cannot now simply be returned to the margins of our movement.

There are others on Labour’s soft left, representing deprived parts of large cities, who could have made a pitch for the leadership without the baggage of Corbynism or Blue Labour, demonstrating that Labour is now listening not lecturing, and avoiding the impression that too hard a divide is being drawn between working-class communities in Britain’s towns and cities. Some of the best policy thinking in recent years has come, for instance, from Rachel Reeves and Bridget Phillipson, and I tend to agree with their stuff more often than I agree with Nandy. Here’s the rub: they haven’t made a pitch. Leadership is sometimes just about sticking your hand up. In fairness, it would have been a colder start for either Reeves or Phillipson; Nandy has been running for leader for years (I would date it to the moment she casually revealed that Owen Jones had tried to persuade her to stand for the leadership in 2015).

To reiterate, I also tend to agree with many policy thinkers associated with Corbynism on what Labour can do in power once it gets there – as frustrated as I have been by how some have positioned themselves (and who they have allied with) in opposition. Perhaps the speed of transition from the movement’s margins to its mainstream meant mistakes were bound to be made. Corbynism’s problem has always been more one of praxis than policy, but its new flagbearer is not the remedy.

It is worth noting that Clive Lewis has also been running for the Labour leadership for several years, and clearly has a great deal to offer the party, but sadly fell at the first hurdle. Sometimes leadership is just about surviving. Lisa Nandy is a born politician, and all that entails. As frustrating as I have found her positioning at Brexit at times, it might be the very thing that makes her a good candidate in the present circumstances, as Brexit gets done. If nothing else, it might be a nice change for Labour to be led by someone actually good at politics. We do not know that this yet applies to Nandy – she is largely untested at a national scale – but there are reasons to doubt the political skills of her rivals.

Keir Starmer has probably been running for the Labour Party leadership longer than anyone else – albeit only sporadically, and perhaps reluctantly. His political persona, which actually seems quite authentic, is of someone who you would really like to share a bottle of wine with on a weeknight, not least because you could trust him to tell when you’ve had enough, if you want to make it to work in the morning. Perhaps this moment in Britain’s national story has been perfectly plotted for a leader like Starmer: there will be plenty of gruelling days at the office ahead.

At the same time, Starmer will not be able to evade scrutiny of his advocacy of a second referendum on EU membership. While continuing (or belatedly starting) to fight the last war will make a lot of us feel good – as well as pleasing many of the voters Labour needs – new political realities must be confronted. Whatever the form of words he eventually settles upon, the second referendum will be for Starmer what Corbyn’s legacy is to Long-Bailey. That is, there is every possibility he will be defined by association with an idea that the public has rejected. When launching yourself as a potential national leader, the story of how you got there will restrict the available vocabulary to describe where you are going.

Labour’s only route out of the political quagmire exacerbated by Brexit is via an attempt to resituate the heart of its governing project in the places it is no longer trusted, but cannot win without. In short, whoever wins, Labour is going to be talking about, and championing, towns. Preferably the party’s leaders will not be holding their noses when they do so. The towns framing is simplistic but encapsulates enough of what went wrong, and of what now needs to be put right. Lisa Nandy is either going to be helping Labour combat the issues encased within it or, with super-charged name recognition, be helping Labour’s opponents (inadvertently) to narrate Labour’s ongoing failure.

Craig Berry is Reader in Political Economy at Manchester Metropolitan University

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