Labour leadership contest – who should take the party forward?

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Image description: Out-going leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn.

With Jeremy Corbyn having announced his resignation as leader following the December 2019 election, the contest for his replacement is heating up. Of those who formerly expressed an interested, five have made it through to the next round: Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips and Emily Thornberry. Going forward, there will be a second stage of nominations from Constituency Labour Parties and affiliated groups between mid-January and February. Following this, there will be a period of hustings before the ballot opens on 21st February. The new leader will be formally announced at a special conference on 4th April. Here’s what students think regarding the next leader and the future of the Labour party.

Oliver Shaw: The Only Way is Wigan

It’s a credit to the Labour Party that there’s a genuine choice of candidates on offer in this leadership race. And while I’m a big fan of Keir Starmer and Jess Phillips, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that Wigan’s Lisa Nandy is Labour’s best hope.

Starmer, the bookies’ favourite, is a standout politician. But here’s the thing: since 2010, Labour has been stuck with no more than 262 seats. Since man landed on the moon, Labour has only won three convincing majorities.

To make that leap to another big win, watered-down Corbynism won’t be enough.

Nor will relying on the remaining rump of the Blair victories. Labour needs to do some serious thinking. Lisa Nandy has been doing precisely that.

The relationship between Labour and its traditional supporters had been decaying for fifty years. It’s finally caved in. This is about ordinary working people and families who just feel like the system has forgotten them.

Beyond Islington, there’s a pervasive sense that Britain is rotten to the core. And Labour isn’t seen to be doing much to stop it, spending too much time courting graduates and affluent voters instead. In towns like mine in the industrial West Midlands, people just don’t trust Labour any more.

In fact, startling numbers of my old school friends are now voting Conservative. Compared to other towns, we’ve been lucky but cuts have had a profound impact, from an explosion in food bank usage and rising homelessness right down to a famously unreliable bus service.

The high street is devastated and young people are scarpering to find opportunities elsewhere. A widely acknowledged malaise has seeped into the town, and we’re only 50 minutes from London Euston by train – when one turns up.

My town hasn’t voted Labour since 2001, and it’s no surprise that it voted Leave. I think it was rooted in a conviction that politicians just don’t care and people blame Labour and Conservatives alike. Nandy gets that, arguing that restoring confidence in Labour will come from the ground up, from being “rooted in our communities again”.

The founder of the Centre for Towns, Nandy understands that Labour must dramatically decentre its focus in order to win back trust from communities that are truly struggling. Labour must remind us all why people actually stand to benefit from progressive policies. Indeed, Corbynism’s priorities (free broadband anyone?) simply aren’t the priorities of voters beyond the M25.

It’s about making Labour patriotic again. But that doesn’t mean playing to the Johnsonian far right. Instead, it’s about reviving a feeling of hope and purpose.

A feeling that all of Britain matters. Plenty of people voted Leave because they didn’t feel that was the case. They feel Britain isn’t working, that a better future must, no matter how, be possible.

Labour has to show us that change begins closer to home.

Real patriotism is about making Britain a better, fairer, greener place to live.

A country we can be proud to call home.

Nandy hasn’t had as much coverage as Starmer or Phillips, but she’d be formidable against Boris Johnson. Just watch her speech endorsing Lindsay Hoyle for Speaker back in December – rarely do politicians make me laugh for the right reasons. I worry that Starmer will become Neil Kinnock 2.0. A top legal mind, but also MP for a North London, Starmer isn’t  talking about a sufficiently radical rethink.

He’s also yet another white man, and the Conservatives managed to elect their first woman leader 45 years ago.

Even if Lisa Nandy doesn’t win on 4 April, Labour should incorporate Nandyism into its healing process. It should have a sturdy foundation for recovery so long as it rejects Rebecca Long-Bailey, the candidate of the unrepentant Corbynite left.

But to win again, the only way is Wigan. 

Oliver Shaw is on Twitter @01iver5haw

Ed Lawrence: If Keir wins, the country wins. And that’s what matters.

Labour has let the country down for a decade and counting. The 2010 election was the first I was properly aware of. Although I knew next to nothing about politics I do remember feeling that resigned sense of sadness which comes when you know things are going to get worse. In my 11-year-old mind, I was sure that Gordon Brown was the good guy.

I knew that the country was angry at him, but I didn’t really know why. I also knew that David Cameron’s plan to reduce the deficit was wrong. Most of all, I knew that Brown was on the side of the poorest, on the side of compassion. He came across as a bit slow and grumpy on TV, but I knew he would make the country better.

Of course, the opinions of 11-year-old me were just the opinions of my parents and brothers, made a little simpler so I didn’t lose interest in what they were saying. I like to think my views are somewhat more developed (and independent) than they were ten years ago. But something about my mindset back then made sense.

I knew that for Labour to lose, was for the country to lose. Things would get worse, especially for those who were already worse off – and that was what mattered.

Since Brown’s defeat, we have failed to put forward a serious candidate for Prime Minister.

Miliband and Corbyn are brilliant activists. Their passion reenergised our members and made it possible to confront radical challenges with radical solutions. But neither candidate earned the public’s trust to put those solutions into practice.

Neither candidate came across as a strong leader. Neither seemed able to unite the country, uphold the United Kingdom’s global standing, and rise above ideological pressures when touch choices had to be made.

In Keir Starmer, we have a real opportunity to change that. As a barrister, he focused his work on human rights (notably supporting poll tax protesters, striking workers, and environmental activists). Not putting Party allegiance above what was right, he argued that the Iraq War was unlawful.

He took Blair’s government to court over its decision rose to reduce asylum seekers’ access to benefits. He rose to become the Director of Public Prosecutions and now has Shadow Cabinet experience. He knows how to make careful decisions in difficult circumstances. 

In December’s election, he foresaw (where the Party leadership didn’t) how much voters cared about Brexit. Had he not been constrained by those running the campaign, he would have focused his message on how Boris’s “Get Brexit Done” line is oversimplified to the point of being a lie. I trust him to be in touch with voters. 

The principle that winning matters – a principle so salient to 11-year-old-me – is what makes Labour a political party. The Labour movement isn’t an intellectual exercise, where we see how many fun futuristic policy ideas we can experiment with on the doorstep. Nor is it a protest group that petitions the government to act – we are meant to be the government that acts. The aspiration of the Leader of the Opposition cannot be to stand in Trafalgar Square and address rallies; it must be to stand in front of 10 Downing St and address the country.

Keir is right that we can’t swing back to replicating New Labour.

The challenges we face now are different to those that Blair and Brown dealt with. We shouldn’t discard the decade of radical thought and policy development which has enriched our movement. But carrying on as we are is not an option either. We’ve lost four elections in a row. Meanwhile the Conservatives have trashed public services, allowed inequality to run wild, and degraded our strongest international ties.

It’s time to stop ignoring the country and start looking like a government in waiting. That’s how we win. That’s what matters. And it starts from the top, with a leader that can take us forward.

Ed Lawrence is on Twitter @ed_lawrence__ 

Stuart Mcloughlin: Neither a Corbynite nor a Blairite. Nandy can bring the Party together.

Following labour’s worst defeat since 1935, it is clear that the party needs to radically rethink its future. We need to understand why we lost so that we can bounce back and help those who so desperately need a Labour government. This does not mean that in order to win we need a dramatic shift to the right. Nor do I think the scaremongering from the far-left of the party about a return to Blairite politics has any grounding in reality.

For all his faults, one of the positives of Corbyn’s tenure was his transformation of political discourse within the Labour party. Left wing policies, primarily re-nationalisation, have become mainstream party tenets unchallenged by any current contender. Even Jess Phillips, commonly touted as the sensible centrist, has vowed to push for the renationalisation of rail (albeit the other planned projects may not make her cut).

The myth that a vote for one of the centrist candidates, like Phillips, would result in a return to the neo-liberal politics of the two thousands is just that. With the shift in the left-wing political discourse under Corbyn, any candidate who reverses these policies would face serious backlash from the labour membership.

What the next leader of the party needs to do is convince the electorate that these policies are credible and beneficial, something that Corbyn sadly failed to do. 

 I believe the best person to do that is Lisa Nandy. I may be biased given that she is the MP for my local area but she is certainly the one to watch. I’m not sure if she has the backing  to go on to win it. Starmer is gaining traction fast, having been recently supported by the largest union in the UK, Unison. But Nandy could be the dark horse of the competition and not without reason.

Many MPs commented after the recent Parliamentary Labour Party candidate hustings that she was the clear winner. Given the platform to perform I think others will rally to her cause. I do not necessarily agree with the line emanating from the Labour Twitter echo chamber. I don’t know that we need a leader from outside London to win back voters in the north and midlands (considering they just overwhelming voted for a metropolitan Oxbridge Etonian).

However, with Nandy and her political track record, this attempt to win back those voters would not be tokenistic. Nandy’s establishment of the think tank Centre for Towns, is testament to her understanding of the issues that  matter to ordinary people. I also believe she is the best candidate to relay the Labour message to the people.

Being a non-London MP, her calls for better public transport and the empowerment of the entire country will hopefully cut through carrying a sincerity previously not felt by the electorate.

I’m sure Nandy knows what it feels like to wait an hour between buses for the Arriva 375 after 6pm.

I also really admire her decision to launch her leadership campaign in the local newspaper The Wigan Post, a strong sign of her desire to boost Labour’s support at a local level, reconnecting with dissatisfied voters. 

 Additionally, Nandy could be the unifying figure we so desperately need and stands a real chance at putting an end to the factionalism and infighting that has plagued our party for the last 5 years. Nandy has support from all sides of the party, most recently demonstrated by the open letter signed in favour of Nandy’s leadership bid by 60 supporters. This was made up of current MPs, Councillors, former ministers and activists.

The letter shows the great respect party members have for Nandy. It highlights her work on protecting the rights of child migrants in her role as chair of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East. While the far-left of the party might not be backing Nandy, it is worth remembering that she was once considered ‘too left-wing’ for Ed Milliband’s team. Neither a Corbynite nor a Blairite, she can bring the party together.

 Whoever becomes the next leader of the Labour Party has a seriously tough job on their hands. The Labour Party is in existential crisis and the threat of a fifth successive Tory election win and a total party wipeout is real. Regardless of who wins, they will have my full support in campaigning for a better and fairer society for the many, not the few. 

Stuart Mcloughlin can be contacted via email at stuart.mcloughlin@regents.ox.ac.uk

Robert Macilraith: An outside perspective

As the Labour Party reels from its worst electoral defeat in just shy of a century, it’s clear some major soul-searching is needed. The loss of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ is perhaps less damning than certain pundits are making out. That Labour need a new lease of life though, is beyond dispute.

As a disclaimer, I did not vote Labour in December 2019. Though I had supported the Party in 2017, I now find it largely incompatible with my own values. That said, I don’t feel the Party is a write-off just yet.

If Labour hope to win in the future, they cannot continue to tune out all but the most ardent of Momentum activists. The Party need to win back the centre-left. They need to restore confidence in their lost heartlands.

They need to be more attractive to the ‘undecided voter’. It’s time to accept that this will not come in the form of continuity Corbyn leadership. Victory for John McDonnell protégé Rebecca Long Bailey would be a move alarmingly ignorant of the electoral wipe out the Party has just suffered.

Corbyn wasn’t entirely a force of destruction for Labour. He delivered a surprisingly strong performance in 2017. Even I was persuaded. It still wasn’t a victory though.

After this latest loss, it’s clear Corbynism is electorally bankrupt.

To be clear, I don’t take the view that this was purely a ‘Brexit’ election. Did confusion over the Party’s Brexit position hurt them in traditional Labour ‘Leave’ seats? Certainly.

But as former Prime Minister Tony Blair pointed out, Labour actually lost more of their ‘remain’ voters from 2017 than ‘Leave’ voters. Meanwhile, the Conservatives were able to keep hold of many of their 2017 ‘Remainer’ seats, such as Cheltenham and Guildford. Failing to build and maintain a coalition of voters was the key downfall of Labour’s electoral hopes.

Of course, Corbyn’s leadership play a part in this failure. But the issue goes beyond that. It comes down to an identity issue.

The message needs to be clearer. Much has been said of Labour’s ‘Christmas wish list’ manifesto. While many of the pledges themselves were popular, the final product failed to boost polling.

The issue of attainability was one factor. Valid concerns were raised about costings. However, the biggest problem was a lack of focus.

Going forward, the new leader must lay out a clear, concise agenda, in a package the public can engage with. Lisa Nandy, with her message of revitalising British towns, would thus be strong pick.

Of course, if Labour are to win an election in future they must do more than win back the ‘Red Wall’ that slipped through their fingers in 2019. They must ask deeper questions about why they have won but three elections in the last forty years. This does not have to mean a revival of the Blairite wing of the Party, but it should spell the end of the Party identifying itself in opposition to Blair.

It should not be forgotten that the loss of Scotland in 2015 harmed Labour’s electoral chances almost as much as the fall of the Red Wall in 2019.

Labour’s next leader must be someone who recognises this. It will not suffice merely to use the word ‘unity’ without pondering more deeply its implications.

A winnable voting bloc must consist of Scottish, Welsh and Northern voters who have become increasingly disaffected with the Party. This is a fact Keir Starmer appears to recognise. Having spoken publicly about the need particularly to win back the Scottish Labour voter, Starmer is someone I could see building a viable campaign.

Who then, from the outside looking in, would be Labour’s best chance? Speaking from the other side, there is a temptation to encourage weak leadership. In the interest of journalistic integrity, however, I will refrain from such partisanship.

As I’ve said already, Long-Bailey is too much a creature of Corbynism to take Labour through the necessary healing process. Momentum can no longer be allowed to dictate the Party’s future. Jess Phillips, the Birmingham Yardley M.P., was someone I’d thought to watch out for before the race began.

However, since her announcement she’s sadly shown she lacks the direction to move the Party forward. At any rate, I for one am sceptical that the Party purists would deem her suitably zealous to assume the leadership. Nandy is certainly an interesting option: she’s a strong parliamentarian with the right clarity of vision.

However, for me the strongest choice is Starmer. He’s shown he has strong support within the Parliamentary Party, having gained 63 nominations to date. This means he is less likely to face the kind of internal division that plagued the early Corbyn years.

He can also appeal to the Labour base, as shown by the endorsement he has received from Unison, the U.K.’s largest trade union. Having been knighted in 2014 for his services to law and justice, I think he’d fair far better in the court of public opinion than Corbyn.

His heavy focus on tackling anti-Semitism and his calls for a broad-church approach also show he has what it takes to re-vitalise the Labour party as a political force. Where I a Labour Party member, Keir Starmer would get my vote. 

Robert Macilraith is on Twitter @LetThemDrinkTea

Image Credit – Jeremy Corbyn – Sophie J Brown