Labour MPs have whittled down the field of candidates to become their new leader to five. It will be up to constituency parties and trades unions to decide whether or not they can all go through to the final round when party members and affiliates will make the ultimate choice. That will be the moment when the personal qualities of the remaining contenders will come under most intense scrutiny. But what, for now, are the most important criteria by which the party should decide what sort of leader it needs?
Labour’s defeat at the general election last month came as a shock but not perhaps as a surprise to many in the party. That’s to say, few expected that they would actually win, though many thought the party might do well enough to deny Boris Johnson a majority. Almost no one imagined they would do so badly, winning the fewest seats since 1935 and handing the Prime Minister a majority of eighty, enough to keep the Tories securely in power for five years and making them difficult to dislodge at the next election. Realists are looking at the prospect of a ten-year trudge in opposition. So what factors should determine who leads them?
Back in the autumn when talk of the next leader was at a vaguer, theoretical level, it was widely accepted that the next leader should definitely be a woman. It was becoming embarrassing that Labour, the supposedly ‘progressive’ party that had pioneered women-only shortlists for parliamentary candidates, should be the only significant party in Britain never to have had a woman leader. The Tories had already had two, both of whom had served as prime minister, and this from a party Labour likes to deride as reactionary. So a woman leader it would have to be.
In the shock of the party’s crushing defeat, Labour MPs have obliged to the extent that four of the five candidates for the job are indeed women. As one wag put it, if being a woman is now key to winning the leadership, the only hope for the sole man still in the race, Sir Keir Starmer, is for him to come out and self-identify as a woman. But the inevitability of the new leader being a woman is no longer unquestioned. The party, it’s argued, lost the election not because Jeremy Corbyn was a man. Indeed, it’s pointed out, Mr Corbyn did exceptionally well back in 2017 when he increased Labour’s share of the vote by ten percentage points to 40%, a level not known since the glory days of Tony Blair – and he did this against a woman Tory leader, Theresa May. In other words, Labour’s not having a woman leader cannot explain December’s disaster and isn’t a necessary condition of winning again.
Those who take this view say a much more cogent explanation of the reversal is staring the party in the face. The one difference in the party’s position between 2017 and 2019 was on Brexit: in 2017 it said unequivocally that it would honour the result of the 2016 referendum whereas in 2019 it appeared to be equivocating by offering a second referendum with an option to remain. On this argument, the next leader of the party cannot by anyone guilty of supporting this equivocation. That would rule out both Sir Keir, the shadow Brexit secretary, and Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, who both argued forcefully that Labour had to make the offer to placate Labour-inclined Remainers (who also constituted majorities in their own constituencies). Another candidate, Rebecca Long Bailey, was complicit as a member of the shadow cabinet that endorsed the position. And in recent days Jess Phillips, a backbench candidate for leader, has even floated the idea of maybe re-joining the EU at some stage. That leaves only Lisa Nandy as the only candidate without Brexit ‘blood’ on her hands. She may have been a Remainer at the time of the referendum, but as the MP for the Leave-backing seat of Wigan, she has consistently said the result needed to be honoured.
To some, however, the Leave/Remain issue is just an aspect of a much bigger issue: the sense that metropolitan Labour in London has lost touch with the party’s working class roots in the country. This, they say, is why Boris Johnson was able so successfully to assault Labour’s ‘red wall’ in Wales, the Midlands and the North, taking so many seats that had been Labour since Adam was a lad. Sir Keir and Ms Thornberry epitomise this metropolitan elite, it’s said, by virtue of their representing neighbouring seats in inner London. They may protest that this overlooks their real origins – Sir Keir’s from a working class background in Liverpool and Ms Thornberry’s, brought up by an abandoned mother on a council estate in Guildford – but it seems to cut no mustard.
Be all this as it may, others argue that neither sex, nor Brexit nor the issue of alleged London elitism is what really matters in choosing the new leader. They key thing is the style the leader presents. One journalist, Rachel Sylvester, argued in The Times on Tuesday that politics in this country boils down to the conflict that has existed in one form or another since the Civil War in the seventeenth-century: are you a Cavalier or a Roundhead?
In the celebrated comic spoof history 1066 and All That, the distinction was that the Cavaliers who supported Charles the First were ‘Wrong but Romantic’ while the Roundheads were ‘Right but Repulsive’. The British like Cavaliers, Ms Sylvester claimed. So they preferred the cavalier Tony Blair to the (very) roundhead Gordon Brown and the gregarious David Cameron to the dour Theresa May. Labour should pick a cavalier, she said, an argument which would seem to favour Jess Phillips. On the other hand it could equally be argued that with an ultra-Cavalier currently living in Downing Street, what Labour needs is an austere, ultra-Roundhead who will be a convincing alternative when Boris the Romantic goes Wrong.
Natural roundheads would no doubt argue that this is all flippant nonsense. Its serious stuff that matters and in contemplating Labour’s defeat there is only one issue that is of any importance: what to do about the inheritance of Jeremy Corbyn and his policies. To Mr Corbyn’s critics both the explanation of Labour’s disastrous current predicament and the course needed to rescue the party are staring it in the face: Corbyn’s whole legacy, but especially his policy programme, are the source of its woes and ditching them is the only way to salvation. That means that any Corbyn-continuation candidate must be defeated. And that means Ms Long Bailey must be stopped. To such critics her ‘hundred per cent’ praise of him earlier this week, and her declared wish to persist with his socialist agenda rule her out of court.
But supporters of Mr Corbyn don’t buy this, notwithstanding the extent of the defeat. They return to his ‘success’ in 2017. His uncompromising socialist programme was as much on show then, they point out, when he won 40% of the vote. Even in the most recent election he secured 32%, which is significantly more than Gordon Brown managed in 2010 and not that far short of Tony Blair’s tally in 2005 (35%) when, through the vagaries of the electoral system, he achieved a majority of 66. In short, they argue, the fact that Labour won so few seats this time shouldn’t obscure the fact that nearly a third of the electorate backed his socialist plan. Labour mustn’t throw out the socialist baby with the bathwater in selecting its new leader.
To some, though, the lesson of Mr Corbyn’s four-year leadership has less to do with his policy platform than with the issue of where he drew his support. In their view the issue that matters most in selecting a new leader is making sure that whoever it is commands majority support in the parliamentary Labour Party. Mr Corbyn’s problem, they say, was that he never had the backing of most Labour MPs. His support lay at the grassroots and when MPs rebelled, with 176 of them backing a motion of no confidence in him, he simply shrugged and carried on. But it meant he had no authority in the House of Commons. His predecessor, Ed Miliband, suffered from a similar, though less extreme handicap: most Labour MPs had wanted his brother, David, to be leader. Some go so far as to say that all parties should go back to the system in which their leaders were elected solely by their own MPs, though this is unlikely to happen any time soon, if ever. But if it matters for Labour to have a leader supported by most of the party’s MPs, then Sir Keir is way out in front: 86 MPs (and MEPs) backed his bid with Ms Long Bailey coming a distant second on 33.
Some people might say that this is all very interesting but surely in the end there is only one criterion that matters: which candidate is the most likely winner in a general election. In most parties such simple pragmatism is sufficient. But Labour is different. Of course everyone in politics wants to win. But there are probably more ideologues in the Labour Party than in other parties, sincere socialists who believe it is better to stick with their principles than compromise them in order to win office. In their eyes, Tony Blair may have been the most successful leader in the party’s history, but his ‘New Labour’ government didn’t create the socialist Britain they long for and they’d prefer not to go that route again, even if it means staying out of office. Stay true and our time will eventually come, seems to be their creed.
So what does matter in choosing a new Labour leader? Is it important that Jeremy Corbyn’s successor should be a woman? Is the record on Brexit the key issue, or is it whether the new leader shouldn’t seem ‘too London’ and can connect with the many traditional Labour voters outside the capital who abandoned the party in December? Should the new leader be a Cavalier or a Roundhead? Should they abandon the Corbyn legacy or sustain it? Does it matter how much support the new leader has among Labour MPs? Should they be more intent on winning or being uncompromising in their socialism? Or is there some quite different factor that really matters?
Let us know what you think.