Labour Leadership election: Stage 1

EdinburghEye on Ko-FiThis was first posted on Facebook on 29th January 2020, with support from my Ko-Fi network.

The next general election for the UK is likely to be in 2024. According to the terms of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, GE2024 would be held Thursday 2nd May (but Johnson says he intends to repeal FTP): according to the Parliamentary Act of 1911, the next general election can be held at the whim of the Prime Minister but no later than Thursday 12th December 2024.

The Leader of the Opposition until the next general election, and of course we hope Prime Minister thereafter, will be one of four people:

  • Rebecca Long-Bailey, 40, MP for Salford and Eccles for 5 years & three elections, Manchester Metropolitan University
  • Lisa Nandy, 40, MP for Wigan for 10 years and four elections, Newcastle University.
  • Keir Starmer, 57, MP for Holborn and St Pancras for 5 years & three elections, Leeds University.
  • Emily Thornberry, 59, MP for Islington South and Finsbury for 15 years and 5 elections, University of Kent.

I mention their univerities because – except for Gordon Brown – every single Prime Minister the UK has ever had, if they had a degree, got their degree from Oxford or Cambridge. In terms of experience in government, Emily Thornbury’s first term as MP was Labour’s last term in government, and as a first-term MP she held no Ministerial post: the other three were all elected into Opposition. Three white people, one woman of colour: three women, one man. Any one of them would make a better Prime Minister than Boris Johnson or any of the Tory MPs who might succeed him if he resigns before the next general election, but that is a very low bar to cross.

Right now, constituency parties and affiliated groups can nominate their preferred candidate. That phase ends on 14th February. Voting begins 21st February and ends 12 noon 2nd April.

On 4th April 2020, we’ll know the result.

The eternal paradox for those of us on the left:

A Labour government at Westminster is always going to be better for the UK as a whole than a Conservative government. (Yes, this applies even to Blair’s government. The Tories began building hospitals using PPI, and would have continued: the Tories would have gone to war with Iraq on Bush’s say-so with even more enthusiasm than Blair.)

But, since WWII, we have had only 30 years of Labour government (and a decade of that was Tony Blair) – we have had 44 years of Conservative government.

Part of that is due to our crocked electoral system, which neither of the big parties has any real enthusiasm to change: FPTP and safe seats delivers a built-in electoral advantage to the Conservatives, but ensures that when Labour gets in, they get in with big majorities and the power to do things. The only reason the LibDems want to change this is that they too want political power at Westminster and proportional representation is the only way they can claw their way back.

What undercuts Labour’s message, too, is that the affirmation that the government will be on your side and help you live the best life you can – isn’t convincing when your experience of government administration is that of Tory austerity, with bureaucrats both unable and paid to be unwilling to help. Nothing has undercut public support for the NHS than sly Tory cuts and bureaucratic changes complicating the process of using the NHS and making it more expensive to run on less and less money.

The Labour Party was created as the party of trade unions. My father, grandfather, and two of my great-grandfathers were trade union members – I have a couple of books still from a set presented to my grandmother’s father by his trade union branch when he stepped down as their branch secretary. But this is the built-in paradox of the Labour Party’s work: my grandfather’s father was a railway porter: his son was a railway clerk who retired rich enough to buy a pub: he married a teacher who could use all her earnings to support their son to go to the private school where he would learn the Latin he needed to pass the Oxford entrance exams and win an exhibition: my father’s trade union was the Association of University Teachers. (My grandmother the teacher was also a trade union member, and very bitter than her trade union wouldn’t help her get a permanent teaching contract: as a married woman, she was only hired one term at a time.)

A trade union works for the betterment of its members. When a trade union is successful, trade union members become well off – they can afford to buy their own homes, support their children through further education, make each generation better off than the one before. A trade union party ideally – in government – applies those principles to the nation: ensures that all of us have access to excellent free healthcare, all of us can go to the best schools because all the schools are excellent, pays for us to go on to tertiary education, ensures that there is a robust safety-net to support us when we fall. We all become better off. Our children can become better off in turn.

Part 5 of the original Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution: “Generally to promote the political, social and economic emancipation of the people, and more particularly of those who depend directly upon their own exertions by hand or by brain for the means of life.”

But the better off people are,, the more likely they are to find Tories quietly saying “Just vote for us. Politics is boring. Politicians all lie, but you deserve to be comfortable. Labour will tax you and spend your money on people less deserving than you are.”

Politics in the UK are tribal. I went on voting Labour, as my forefathers and foremothers had, til 2015 when I finally – *finally* decided that I had had enough and voted Scottish Green. If my options in 2015 had been to see the Labour MP win again or see a Conservative or a LibDem get in, I would likely have *still* voted Labour – I think. But I knew that regardless of how I voted, the next MP would be either Labour or SNP, and I had got to the point with Labour where I didn’t care which. There are plenty of Scottish voters who like me felt it wasn’t so much that we left Labour as Labour left us – we didn’t want to support the anti-immigrant, anti-welfare stance that Labour MPs were taking to try to win support from the tribally-Labour middle-class white people who read the Daily Mail and The Sun. We went Green or SNP in enough numbers that in 2015, as everyone knows, the Labour vote collapsed in Scotland, as the LibDem vote had collapsed after uniting with the Tories in 2010.

I still think that had Corbyn become Prime Minister, even of a minority government relying on LibDem or SNP MPs for confidence and supply votes, he might have won back Scotland if he had stopped Brexit. Because Corbyn, in 2015, changed the Labour Party leadership election from what MPs had expected to something entirely different – as we see in the line-up for 2015:

  • Chuka Umunna, 37, MP for Streatham for 5 years & two elections, no Ministerial experience. Manchester University.
  • Mary Creagh, 47, MP for Wakefield for 10 years & three elections, no Ministerial experience. Oxford University.
  • Liz Kendall, 44, MP for Leicester West for 5 years and two elections, no Ministerial experience. Cambridge University.
  • Andy Burnham, 45, MP for Leigh for 14 years and four elections, five Ministerial posts. Cambridge University.
  • Yvette Cooper, 46, MP for Pontefract and Castleford/Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford for 18 years and five elections, six Ministerial posts, Oxford University.
  • Jeremy Corbyn, 66, MP for Islington North for 32 years and 8 elections, no Ministerial experience, North London Polytechnic.

Back when Labour first started winning elections, candidates for election were more likely to be staunch trade union members (or, like Corbyn, local councillors). The Labour Party was the party of the unions – I had a vote in the Labour Party leadership elections by virtue of being an affiliate supporter via my trade union membership – and a trade union leader was likely to have come up through the ranks.

Labour Party MPs today are not former care workers or former zero-hours contract workers. The best way to become an MP, if that’s your goal, is to get a degree from a good university, to be able to afford to work for your local MP or party for free, to get a job assisting an MP – to work yourself into a position that when a plum constituency, a safe seat or a winnable seat, falls vacant at general or by-election, the party will see you are short-listed. This is not something anyone working long or unpredictable hours as a zero-hours contract worker can do.

In many ways, the Labour Party is a victim of its own success: the people whose forefathers and foremothers tribally voted Labour for a better life are now comfortable enough to be susceptible to Tory arguments. But there are more people working and worse-off now than ever before. Tory legislation has ensured employers can block their unionising and makes going on strike legally ever more difficult: we are the people who would have benefited from a Labour government, we minimum-wage zero-hours contract workers – but we’re also the people least likely to vote at all, and in most of the country – the safe-seats phenomenon – it never seems to matter who you vote for, you know in advance who’s going to get in.

Up until the leadership election of 2015, Labour Party leaders were voted in by Labour Party MPs. (The election was run on a bloc vote system, which meant each MP had a vote worth far more in determining the result than any individual member.) The voting change instigated by Ed Miliband – one member, one vote – meant that for the first time in decades, candidates for Labour Party leadership had to campaign for the support of the membership. In 2015, four out of five of the leadership candidates understood how to talk to other MPs and to the press: they didn’t, because it had never been a job requirement, understand how to talk to the kind of people who are politically active and who *want* a Labour Government that will act as if it were the party of trade unions – working to improve the living standard of the membership, which – as a government – could be considered everyone in the UK.

Corbyn had been a backbench MP since he was elected. He’d never learned to turn a sweet phrase that sounds well to the UK’s right-wing press: he’d voted his conscience too often to ever be wanted in a ministerial position: but he did know how to say what he thought, and what he thought sounded a lot clearer and more straightforward than the other four MPs who were campaigning in politicalspeak – statements of policy to be obscurely understand by other Labour MPs but not likely to trigger the anger of the owners of the British media. It’s not just that Corbyn won two leadership elections: the Labour Party at the time of the 2015 general election had about 190,000 members. The Labour party today has 485,000 members. That’s about 300,000 people who joined Labour because they liked what Corbyn had to say and how he said it.

As we know, the owners of the British media did not like what Corbyn had to say and how he said it, and absolutely didn’t want someone like Corbyn in government. As far as media reports went, Corbyn could do nothing right. And that undoubtedly helped to lose Labour the general elctions of 2017 and 2019.

But the problem for the current candidates for Labour Party leadership: to be elected, they have to convince the 300,000 members who *did* like what Corbyn had to say, and how he said it, to vote for them. And do so in the full awareness that if they talk like Corbyn did about what he wants to achieve with a Labour government, and win the support of the membership, they will also win the utter emnity of the billionaire owners of the UK media, who will look for a weak point to attack and go at it without ceasing.

Corbyn’s chief weak point was what the UK media decided to call “anti-Semitism” – his history of supporting Palestinians against Israel. This was squarely in line with Labour Party policy as instigated by Ed Miliband. The same pro-Israel campaign groups that attacked Corbyn for anti-Semitism called Miliband a self-hating Jew for turning against Israel: but the mainstream media found attacking Miliband for being Jewish more effective than attacking him for the policy change. Once Corbyn was leader, the same British media that had attacked Miliband for being Jewish, took up material from the pro-Israel campaign groups and attacked Corbyn for being anti-Semitic. (Meantime no one in either the mainstream UK media nor the pro-Israel campaign groups cares that the first-ever Jewish Speaker of the House of Commons was subjected to anti-Semitic comments by the Tory Leader of the House and has been denied a peerage by Boris Johnson.)

None of this has to make sense: the point of attacking Corbyn for being “anti-Semitic”, by the Tories and their allies in the press, was not that they actually cared about anti-Semitism – or, really, about Israel – it was that the leader of the Labour Party must be subjected to a constant tirade of abuse and denigration, made to appear not merely a weak person but a wicked person, clearly unfit to be Prime Minister.

None of the lead candidates necessarily even know what the weak spot is that the Tories and the right-wing press and the BBC will go for. I don’t think Corbyn could have guessed that what had really been a fairly small part of his political career – public support for Palestinians – would turn into a mass campaign accusing him and Labour of anti-Semitism.

I think the reason Chuka Umunna withdrew from the leadership contest rather abruptly in 2015, was that he had suddenly realised that both he and his family would be subjected to racist abuse if he were leader of the Labour Party: for him, the “weak point” was obvious. (The racist abuse against Diane Abbott stepped up when she became Shadow Home Secretary: what it would have been if she had won the leadership contest in 2010 is only too imaginable.)

Jess Phillips retired from the leadership race recently after an interview with Mumnset. Rumour had it, before that interview, that Phillips is herself a TERF. But it became clear to transphobic Mumsnetters during that interview that Phillips is an ordinary Labour activist naturally supporting trans equality – the Labour Party being the party of the Gender Recognition Act and the Equality Act. Jess Phillips may or may not have realised it until that moment, but her “weak point” that tabloids and Tories would have attacked her over would have been what TERFs call being “anti-woman” or “lesbophobic” – accepting that trans women are women.

Emily Thornberry may not even be on the final ballot. She has as yet no affiliate groups nominating her, and she has as of now only four constituencies supporting her – and she needs at least 33. Emily Thornbury is the most senior MP of the four: and she is 136 on the list of MPs by seniority – and there are 43 Labour MPs above her on that list.

If not for Jeremy Corbyn’s disruptioon of the contest, the likely winner in 2015 would probably have been Andy Burnham: possibly Yvette Cooper. Creagh and Umunna lost their seats in 2019: Burnham stepped down in 2017: Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper are still in Parliament – Kendall has as much seniority as Lisa Nandy and Yvette Cooper has more than Emily Thornberry, and both obviously have more experience than either Rebecca Long-Bailey or Keir Starmer – but in this leadership election, according to MPs, MEPs, CLPs, and affiliated groups, Long-Bailey and Starmer are the front runners, and Starmer at present ahead of Long-Bailey.

But the reason the leadership shortlist is mostly women and the only man is a MP elected in 2015, is because the Parliamentary Labour Party doesn’t expect to win in 2024. I don’t believe MPs were nominating a leader to be the next Prime Minister: they were nominating a leader to be a reformer, to make the Labour Party more vote-able, more friendly to the tabloids who claim to represent the electorate. Keir Starmer got the most MP nominations and the most CLP nominations: but I think he’s perceived not as the next PM but as a sound Leader of the Opposition and someone who will “lead from the top” – tell constituencies to get in line and follow party policy to make Labour “electable”.

To be clear, I don’t know if that’s what Keir Starmer really thinks. Before the MP nominations closed, the leadership candidates were campaigning to the Parliamentary Labour Party: only after February will they need to campaign to the wider membership. But I do think Keir Starmer is looking backwards and thinking “If I were leader, what would I have done in 2019?” rather than looking back and thinking “How are the Tories going to scam us in 2024?” A blog he wrote for The Times of Israel about “tackling anti-Semitism” indicates he thinks the media will continue to bring up anti-Semitism once Corbyn is out of office.

On the other hand, Keir Starmer is absolutely a good man for front-bench factual opposition to the lies Boris Johnson and his government have told and will tell about Brexit, which is going to be a slow-motion disaster lurching up on us through 2020, to a likely crash on 31st December. This will all be Boris Johnson’s fault, and Boris Johnson will want to lay the blame elsewhere, and the Brexit-supporting media will want to help Johnson do that.

Though it’s clear that mere fact-based opposition to Brexit, merely having a policy that would have worked to ensure that if the UK left the EU it was something that the UK had definitely voted for – the plan for a second referendum in June 2020 – isn’t by itself enough. The Tories lied and lied again about Brexit, about May’s deal, about Johnson’s deal. Johnson’s claptrap slogan “Get Brexit done!” was a better soundbite than “Let’s first of all figure out how we can with least damage leave the EU, and then vote for whether we leave on that deal or remain in the EU.”

Am I supporting Keir Starmer for the Labour leadership? I am not. I don’t have a vote. I have no idea if he’s the best person for the job, and while current polling tends to support him, I don’t think anyone honestly knows how Labour Party membership will vote in February/March – I would hope the membership themselves are still making up their minds.

I hope that by 2024, Scotland will have voted for independence: but I have friends and family in England and Wales and their suffering under a Conservative government would never be of merely academic interest to me.

I think the main reason Labour lost so badly in December 2019, wasn’t because of anything Labour did: it was down to targeted Facebook ads convincing people who would usually have voted Labour, to stay home. Note that I haven’t done the research required to back this hypothesis up: I base it on the fact that Labour’s share of the vote went down heavily without the Conservative share of the vote rising by anything like an equivalent. The missing Labour voters didn’t turn out to vote Tory: they didn’t turn out at all. Boris Johnson hired a social media campaign team for GE2019 whose job was creating targeted ads to deliver the message – and because those ads weren’t public, we have no general picture of his campaign – all we saw was the results. Labour voters stayed home and let a Tory MP win.

Over the next four or five years, Boris Johnson has the power to restrict voting rights by requiring a Voter ID; to gerrymander constituencies by cutting the number of MPs in the next boundary review: he can set up the conditions in advance to ensure the Conservatives have the best chance of getting a majority, and if he repeals the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, he can call an election whenever he thinks he has the best chance of winning it. He can do all that, and I am far from clear that any of the Labour leadership candidates has a clear idea of what they can do to combat him, let alone stop him, let alone win despite the obstacles he will set in the way.

I’d like to be wrong, and quite possibly I am. I wouldn’t expect any candidate right now to say crisply “We lost because Boris Johnson cheated and lied: if I am leader I will expose his cheating, denounce his lies, and work hard to ensure a party campaign structure that can fight his cheating and lies on social media and elsewhere.” I wouldn’t expect any of them to say that, because if they did, the mainstream media would howl them down for being bad losers. But I hope that whoeever wins the leadership this April, has that firmly in mind.

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Filed under Brexit, GE2019

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