Labour Party on hold while seek to replace Jeremy Corbyn as leader

The race to choose Labour's next leader is on, but the process is a long, drawn out one.

Rebecca Long-Bailey (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Rebecca Long-Bailey
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA)
Shortly after presiding over its worst electoral defeat since 1935, Jeremy Corbyn declared that he would be stepping down from the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party while the party “reflected” on the result, but would not lead it into another election. The terms of his announcement caused a raising of eyebrows, both within the Westminster bubble and more generally in the media. In the British political system, if you lead your party to electoral defeat you are expected to resign immediately.
It is considered the honorable thing to do, like a Roman general defeated in battle falling on his sword. You do not – as Corbyn did – declare that you will hold on to the leadership until Labour’s complex electoral system, taking months to work through, produces a successor. You resign, and if necessary, a temporary leader takes over for a limited period.
When Ed Miliband lost the general election for Labour in 2015, he resigned at once and Harriet Harman became temporary leader until Corbyn was elected to the office. Harman is definitely not a Corbynite. She is a social democrat. This is perhaps the clue to Corbyn’s decision to hold on to the leadership. The far-left clique, led by the Momentum organization, which has seized the reins of power within the Labour Party, will not willingly lose control, even temporarily, and the leadership electoral process will not play itself out until April 4.
The Labour Party’s method of electing its leader, a four-stage process, is complicated to a degree. First, hopeful contenders must be nominated by at least 10% of Labour members of Parliament or members of the European Parliament (MEPs). For this leadership election, candidates were required to obtain 22 signed nominations. Five contenders succeeded in jumping this hurdle; one did not.
In the next stage, candidates must obtain backing from either three Labour affiliates (that is, trade unions or associated groups like the Jewish Labour Movement) or 5% of local constituency Labour parties. On the affiliate route, two of the affiliates must be trade unions. If candidates are relying on local party support, they must be backed by 5% of the total, which amounts to 33 local parties. This stage, which lasts until February 14, saw one contender quickly eliminated, and another could yet fall at this fence.
The third leg of the marathon requires winning a ballot of Labour Party members. At a recent count, party membership stood at more than 540,000, including an influx of new members ahead of the leadership vote. The postal ballot will run from February 21 to April 2.
Finally, using the alternative vote system of preferential voting, the winning contender will be announced on April 4.
The four candidates who succeeded in reaching stage two of the race agreed to participate in a series of joint hustings up and down the country at which they would parade themselves and their varying opinions. Certain indicators likely to influence voting patterns are emerging.
To start with, of the four candidates who entered the race, three are women. The Labour Party, which prides itself on its progressive credentials, has never had a woman leader, unlike their Conservative rivals who have already had two – Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. There is a strong current of opinion within Labour circles that the moment to correct this anomaly is now.
Indeed, there have been calls for the male candidate, Sir Keir Starmer, to stand aside for that very reason. Supporters of Starmer, once Britain’s director of Public Prosecutions, and later Corbyn’s shadow Brexit secretary, argue strongly that, regardless of gender, the best person for the job should be elected. That may well prove to be Starmer, with impeccable Labour credentials (he is named after Labour’s very first MP, Keir Hardy), as he quickly edged into the lead and was the first to qualify for round three.
His nearest rival, which some polls have already put ahead of him, is Rebecca Long-Bailey. She is regarded as the Corbyn-continuity candidate. Close to Corbyn throughout his leadership, she was a member of his shadow cabinet and was largely responsible for writing the manifesto on which Labour went to the country in 2019. She is supported by Momentum, which helped Corbyn to the leadership, and has won the support of the UK’s largest trade union, Unite. She is also the candidate of choice of the so-called Corbynites within the Labour movement, most of whom are in denial about the toxic effect on the electorate of the manifesto she had so large a hand in producing.
The two other women contenders are Lisa Nandy, a social democrat whose distrust of Corbyn’s leadership led to her resignation from the shadow cabinet in 2016, and Emily Thornberry, who was Corbyn’s shadow foreign secretary but strongly opposed the equivocal stance on Brexit that he adopted as party policy, and pushed for a completely Remain position.
Nandy has already qualified to enter the leadership ballot, Thornberry, who does not have a strong base in either the trade union movement or at the local party level, had not done so by early February, and may fail to do so.
The first leadership hustings were held in Liverpool on January 18. Antisemitism within the Labour Party, and the failure of Corbyn as leader to deal with it effectively, was one of the major topics discussed. All the candidates pledged to tackle the antisemitism crisis left behind by Corbyn.
Long-Bailey said she wanted to establish the “gold standard” in dealing with complaints, in order to reset the Labour Party’s relations with the Jewish community.
Nandy said there had been a “collective failure of leadership” in the shadow cabinet about the problem of antisemitism, which had let Labour and the country down.
Thornberry said Labour needed to drive antisemites out. “I have always been clear about it, and I always will, because it’s unacceptable. It undermines us as a party and undermines our soul.”
Starmer told members that if they were antisemitic “you shouldn’t be in the Labour Party,” adding that if elected he would demand a report on his desk every week until the problem was eradicated. At a Holocaust Remembrance Day event on January 27, Starmer said that on “day one” of being elected he would demand an update of complaints of antisemitism within the party, and a “clear timetable for their resolution.”
At the same event, Thornberry asserted that Corbyn would always call out those who play the race card, and was immediately criticized by Labour MPs for supporting him and failing to mention his failure to deal with the problem inside the Labour Party.
By the time the convoluted electoral process has run its course and the Labour Party gets around to announcing its new leader, their catastrophic general election result will be four months behind them. In the interim, Corbyn continues to present the public face of Labour to the country. Week after week, at Prime Ministers Questions, TV viewers endure the spectacle of Corbyn, a lame duck leader, ineffectively facing the UK’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, in the House of Commons. Corbyn sits on the Opposition front bench flanked by the four MPs fighting to succeed him, while the rest of his parliamentary colleagues are vowing their allegiance to one or other of his possible successors.
Corbyn’s appearances in Parliament and the media are object lessons in denial: it is as though the election did not happen and his policies were not repudiated, especially by voters whom Labour had taken for granted for decades. He has never acknowledged his self-evident failure to deal with the upsurge in antisemitism under his leadership, and he continues to promote the policies contained in his election manifesto.
His refusal to admit what seems self-evident to most people is the line adopted enthusiastically by his hard-core supporters within the Labour movement – the so-called Corbynites. And because the final stage of the leadership electoral process depends on winning the ballot of members, this denial has infiltrated the leadership contest, and affected the pitches of all four candidates.
The antisemitism issue was so toxic during the general election that all the candidates have felt it essential to promise to address it. With that exception, Corbyn’s messianic-like status among Labour Party members means that those seeking to replace him must pretend that he was not part of the reason they lost. Long-Bailey, asked to mark his leadership out of 10, awarded him 10. Only Jess Phillips was openly critical, and she is now out of the race due to lack of support.
Momentum is, of course, pushing hard for Long-Bailey, who has every intention of continuing to offer the country the Corbyn vision. Nandy declares that Labour’s debacle in the election was due to media bias against Corbyn, and its misrepresentation of perfectly sound policies. Even Starmer, the frontrunner, who has never been considered a far-Left politician, is having to defer to socialist rhetoric – perhaps hoping that if he becomes leader he can somehow tame the bucking Momentum bronco. That would be a struggle of herculean proportions – and with Boris Johnson in power as prime minister with a comfortable majority, the nation will have plenty of time to sit back and observe it.