Moving slowly through the gears: the Labour leadership election reaches its next stage
13 January 2020
Whilst Prime Minister Boris Johnson talks for the nation as the Iran crisis mounts, Labour continues to talk to itself. The leadership contest will drag on over the next three laborious months, but it enters a critical new phase this coming week. There are three important milestones to look out for.
The one that will inevitably garner most attention is just how many of the six self-declared contenders for the leadership (Sir Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Jess Phillips, Lisa Nandy, Emily Thornberry and Clive Lewis) will secure enough MP/MEP nominations to make it through to the next stage. The magic number is 22, representing ten per cent of Labour’s MPs/MEPs following its General Election catastrophe last month. As of first thing this morning, Starmer is way out in front with 68 nominations, comfortably clearing the first hurdle. He’s followed by Long-Bailey with 26, Nandy with 24 and Phillips with 22, so we know that a minimum of four will go through to the next stage.
The question is whether Thornberry, the current Shadow Foreign Secretary, who probably should have more important things to concern her right now, can get from her current 10 nominations to the threshold of 22 by the 2.30pm deadline this afternoon, or even more improbably can Lewis do the same (he has just four at the moment). There are over 60 MPs/MEPs yet to declare who they’ve nominated so it’s not impossible, merely implausible. Some MPs may decide to ‘lend’ their nomination to one of those struggling to get on the ballot, just as many who do not share his ideology did back in 2015 to get Corbyn on the ballot paper, but it’s far less likely this time around. Back then, some MPs were persuaded to nominate Corbyn to “widen the debate” and at least give the whole membership a far-left candidate to vote for (we now know how that turned out). But Thornberry and Lewis are not that ideologically distinct from some of the other candidates who have already secured the necessary nominations, so the argument holds less water this time.
Meanwhile, those candidates who have already secured their nominations spent the weekend making their initial pitch and finessing their campaign teams. Starmer is portraying himself as the unity candidate, positioning himself as equidistant between Blair and Corbyn. His chief of staff for the campaign is Kat Fletcher, Corbyn’s election agent but her deputy as head of field operations is Matt Pound, organiser of Labour First, one of the most right-of-centre pressure groups in the party. Neither Long-Bailey nor Phillips are as equivocal. Long-Bailey has Jon Lansman, the far-left chair and founder of Momentum, heading her campaign with Corbyn social media outrider, Matt Zarb-Cousin, as her director of communications. Whilst she rejected the label of the ‘continuity Corbyn’ candidate at the weekend, she has done little to distance herself from the previous regime giving Corbyn a remarkable 10 out of 10 for his performance as Leader.
You only have to look at who has nominated Jess Phillips to see where she’s coming from: Wes Streeting, Neil Coyle, Alison McGovern, Ian Murray, Rachel Reeves, Margaret Hodge and co. represent the real hardcore Corbyn sceptics amongst Labour MPs. She is pitching herself as the straight-talking, no-nonsense authentic Brummie who could unsettle Boris Johnson whilst not being afraid to tell the party some hard truths about what it needs to do to win power in 2024 (i.e. move to the centre). Her list of backers also includes Liz Kendall, who made a similar pitch back in 2015, but Phillips will be hoping to do far better than the risible 4.8% of the vote Kendall achieved then.
Nandy is possibly the most interesting. She’s from a soft-Left Ed Milibandite background and was part of Corbyn’s initial Shadow Cabinet until she resigned to head Owen Smith’s campaign in his misplaced challenge to Corbyn in 2016. Representing Wigan, one of the “Red Wall” Rugby League-loving Brexit-supporting seats that did not quite crumble to Johnson, she now talks about rebuilding a “Red Bridge” to unite the interests of working class towns not just in the North and Midlands, but also those like Hastings, Great Yarmouth, Swindon and Gravesham in the South which were once represented by Labour MPs under Tony Blair.
On Wednesday, following the closure of MP nominations, the next stage of the process begins, lasting for a month. Those who have won enough MP backing then need to secure either 5% of Constituency Labour Party nominations (CLPs) or three affiliated organisations, two of which must be trade unions (there are currently 12 affiliated unions to the Labour Party). There are 633 CLPs in the country, so candidates need the backing of at least 32. The majority are likely to support either Starmer or Long-Bailey, which could leave the other candidates relying on union backing. But there’s another twist. According to the rule book, candidates can’t just get the backing of any old three affiliates but “three comprising 5 per cent of fully paid up affiliated membership”. In reality, this means getting the support of at least one of the very big trade unions: Unison (already nominated Starmer), Unite (likely to nominate Long-Bailey), GMB (who last time balloted its membership before nominating Owen Smith) and the shop-workers union, USDAW, which is traditionally moderate. This may well leave one of the candidates off the final ballot paper that will go to members of the party in February.
The final milestone this week is the opening on Tuesday for 48 hours of applications for “registered supporters” to vote in the ballot. This was an innovation by Ed Milliband to allow Labour supporters, on payment of a fee, to vote in leadership elections alongside full members. In 2015, the signing up fee was just £3 and the party was swamped with sign-ups not just from far-left communists, Trotskyists and Stalinists supporting Corbyn, but from vocal Conservatives too, wanting to disrupt Labour’s chances by voting for a hard-left candidate at minimal cost. This time the fee is £25, around half the cost of full membership, which may deter as many supporter sign-ups.
By the end of this week, we should get a clearer idea of who is still in the race, but there remains a very long way to go until April 4th when the new leader will be announced. At a similar stage in 2015, Andy Burnham was the clear favourite, but he ultimately just about scraped home in second place way behind Corbyn. There are likely to be many twists yet in this year’s race.
Pete Bowyer is a Partner at DRD Partnership in London, UK.
PHOTO: Courtesy of The Independent