The State of the Race: Inside the Labour Leadership Election

As the Labour leadership election rumbles on, local Labour UK have met to nominate their favoured successor to Jeremy Corbyn. In committee rooms and church halls up and down the country, Labour members have been having their say over which candidates will make it onto the final ballot.

Now that Corbyn is on his way out, how is the party membership that twice elected him responding to Labour’s crushing defeat in the General Election? Which candidates are members gravitating towards? I decided to dust off my Labour membership card and head to my local nomination meeting to find out. 

The Sun’s endorsement of Tony Blair in the 1997 General Election

For full disclosure, I have never been Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest fan. But this article is not about what I think. As someone who stays up late re-watching BBC coverage of the 1997 Election Night, and who has a framed picture of Tony Blair on their wall, I’m definitely not representative of the average Labour party member – 70% of whom have a positive view of Corbyn’s leadership according to a recent YouGov poll. These are the people who will choose Labour’s next leader, and if you’re a particularly optimistic Labour enthusiast, Britain’s next Prime Minister.

The first thing that strikes you when you walk into a Labour party meeting is how old everybody is. The members gathered on a cold, blustery night in Adel Methodist Church were a world away from the thousands of enthusiastic students that turned up to cheer Jeremy Corbyn at an open-air rally at the Brudenell Social Club during the 2017 General Election campaign. Of the 120 party members in attendance, I was probably one of just a handful under the age of thirty. 

Members were invited to speak for three minutes in favour of their chosen candidate. First, the supporters of Rebecca Long-Bailey were invited to speak. Long-Bailey is widely regarded as the “continuity Corbyn candidate” – she was the only leadership candidate to support Corbyn’s bid to become Labour leader and has remained assiduously loyal to him ever since.

 Her supporters were passionate, but it was obvious to me that their speeches had been prepared in advance – clearly, this meant a lot to them. They all insisted that Labour should not change course, even if it had seen its worst defeat since 1935. Their message was clear – Labour’s policies were popular, we won the argument and the defeat was caused by Brexit, the hostile media and treacherous Labour MPS who had opposed Corbyn.

I had expected that the scale of our defeat would have prompted some deep soul searching on the part of Corbyn’s loyal supporters. However, it seemed that this unpromising message was appealing to some members who had backed Corbyn in the past. 

The next to speak were the supporters of Lisa Nandy – or not. Nobody seemed willing to speak up for the Wigan MP. Only after a long and awkward silence, an elderly man got to his feet to speak. He had not prepared a speech but made a series of insightful points. He praised Nandy for her thoughtful approach and for not pretending to have all answers to the challenges Labour is facing. After he had finished, three other members came forward to speak in her support. 

You can call me biased because I most definitely am, but their arguments were far more convincing than those in favour of Rebecca Long-Bailey. Whilst direct criticism of Corbyn is rare, and Labour members may look homogenous, they are a pretty ideologically diverse group. Even among many former Corbyn supporters, some of whom spoke for Nandy, there has been an acceptance of what went wrong and that Labour has to change if it ever wants to win again.

Nandy resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet and has been critical of his leadership in the past. That she seems to be winning support from former Corbyn backers suggests that the election defeat may have resulted in a loss of faith in the Corbyn project among some members.

After nobody volunteered to speak for Emily Thornberry, it was Keir Starmer’s supporters’ turn. The former Shadow Brexit Secretary has pitched himself as the unity candidate who can end the infighting by treading the fine line between being electable and holding left-wing policy positions.

His supporters stuck to this theme, emphasising unity and electability – an appetising message for Labour members worn out by years of factional infighting and demoralised by electoral defeat. Based on recent polls of Labour members that put him way ahead of his rivals, this message appears to be cutting through. 

But it was when I heard the speeches in favour of Richard Burgon, uber-Corbyn loyalist Leeds East MP, I felt as if I’d passed through the looking glass.

Leeds East MP Richard Burgon

One of his supporters went on about the perils of quantitative easing, seemingly forgetting that we are in the opposition and have no control over monetary policy. Another insisted that the British public was crying out for radical socialist change. Why then, had they just elected Boris Johnson by a landslide?

They seemed totally disconnected from reality, so much so one stood up to say he was supporting Colin Burgon (he had confused the deputy leadership candidate with his uncle). Political parties always seem to attract a number of oddballs and cranks, needless to say there are plenty in the Conservative Party too. The question was, which way would the silent majority cast their vote?

After a long wait and several recounts, the results were read out. Keir Starmer had won a narrow victory over Rebecca Long-Bailey. Long-Bailey had actually won on the first ballot, but when Lisa Nandy’s second preferences were redistributed, Starmer picked up 23 votes and finished 61-58 ahead of his rival. 

Although I cast my ballot for Nandy, I was relieved by the result. Starmer may be pitching himself to win the support of left-wing Labour members, but he is not a diehard Corbynite. If he wins on the 4th of April, Labour can begin to put the last five years behind us and start to make up some of the ground we have lost.

Denial is the natural first stage of grief, but if Labour is to have any hope of winning again, we have to be honest and accept what went wrong. We cannot afford blame, bargaining or denial. We cannot afford to behave like a delusional owner on Kitchen Nightmares who does not understand why they do not get any customers, insisting to Gordon Ramsey that their food is delicious whilst their kitchen is a mess.

The result of the vote in Leeds North West, and similar votes across the country, suggest that enough Labour members are moving on from denial, through bargaining and onto acceptance.  Labour may have a mountain to climb if it is to form a Government in 2024, but on the basis of what I heard from rank and file Labour members in that meeting, it might be making the first tentative steps in the right direction.