Assessing the strengths and weaknesses of those vying for the top job in the party
by Nick Wright writing in the Morning Star 9 January 2020
THE Parliamentary Labour Party hustings this week presented the leadership hopefuls with their first chance to woo MPs.
It gave them the problem of doing so without blowing their pitch to the party’s electorate.
The dilemma of appearing to be simultaneously in tune with Jeremy Corbyn’s heritage while seeking the endorsement of the Corbyn-sceptic MPs has resulted in some careful positioning.
Cross-dressing while competing in an egg and spoon race is an image that comes to mind.
There is a strong lobby for Labour to select a female leader. Emily Thornberry declared first but has limited support from the centre and right despite being an effective Commons performer with enough humour and brio to challenge the mightiest of parliamentary egos.
Even though she was brought up on a council estate and went to a secondary modern school, it is incongruous that she is being cast as a tribune for the working class.
I always thought she was unfairly sacked by Ed Miliband after she tweeted ambiguously about a Rochester house decorated with a St George’s flag and with a white van parked outside.
But joking (and her own white-van-driving brother) aside, it did reveal something of a metropolitan tin ear for working-class sensibilities.
Out-of-towners who think her South Islington seat is a nest of privilege don’t really understand how super-rich and poor live cheek by jowl in London.
Even if not as proletarian as Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North redoubt, hers is still solidly Labour.
For Lady Nugee — for that is she — living in an impossibly expensive house and being a barrister married to a knighted High Court judge is not a disqualification for elevation in the Labour Party.
To her credit, she has not opted to adorn herself in left-wing fancy dress any more than her record allows.
With solidly Establishment credentials, a convinced EU enthusiast and a committed member of Labour Friends of Israel — even though she is a sharp critic of both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump — she is not going to worry Brussels big wigs, Nato strategists or White House hawks.
Her fellow lawyer and rival for Establishment support is Sir Keir Starmer. He has an impeccably working-class background and he is unashamedly milking it for every drop of plebeian credibility.
He needs to.
The thing about Starmer is that he really is a very able, liberal-minded and public-spirited figure who by talent, education and application richly deserves his knighthood for services to the law.
He has come under sharp criticism for some of his judicial acts, but then no-one gets to be Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath, head of the Crown Prosecution Service and then director of public prosecutions by subverting the bourgeois order.
It is not a discreditable ambition to lead the Labour Party and a man whose parents named him after Labour’s first working-class leader was certainly born into the right tribe.
His open support for the parliamentary coup which Labour MPs mounted to remove Corbyn is just one of the handicaps he has to overcome if he is to win support in the mainstream left.
Another is the active enthusiasm for his candidacy from the surviving representatives of the obscure and entirely marginal Trotskyite group of EU enthusiasts with which he was associated in his early career.
It is from this part of the spectrum that some of the extra-parliamentary backing for Clive Lewis originates.
Although an early supporter of Corbyn, he resigned from the shadow cabinet over the decision to trigger Article 50 to start Brexit negotiations and has since been tied up with the Love Socialism Hate Brexit group.
It is hard to see where he is going to get sufficient support from either MPs or party members beyond these increasingly marginal tendencies.
Like Thornberry and Lewis, Starmer is completely identified with the Remain parliamentary alliance which combined an unceasing subversion of Corbyn’s commitment to respect the referendum vote with an open campaign to recalibrate Labour’s position in the election as a Remain party.
He was the key actor in that strategically inept process and bears responsibility for Labour’s defeat.
Lisa Nandy reportedly performed well at the MPs’ hustings with a barely coded attack on Corbyn’s circle and a portfolio of decentralising policies but she will struggle to break out of the narrow circles for which her contradictory mix of messages appeals.
She is not to be underestimated but, like Lewis, she in this for name recognition and to stake a claim for the future.
Jess Phillips’s media profile suggests she carries Rupert Murdoch’s colours in this race but is perhaps not who he really favours.
She has a certain appeal among those who mistake attention-seeking for plain speaking but even YouGov’s pre-race sampling finds her far from credible.
If she had played to her real strengths she might well have emerged as an effective spokeswoman for women’s issues.
On these she has something significant to say and the experience to back it up. Instead, her rampant narcissism made her the plaything of the media and a megaphone for moves to unseat Corbyn.
A marker of her marginal appeal is her latest call for Britain to rejoin the European Union.
The difficult thing for Labour’s members, supporters and affiliated members is to weigh up the candidates’ expressed views as measured against their actions and test these against the absolute imperative to elect someone who can lead the rebuilding of the party as an all-round campaigning organisation rather than a narrow electoral machine.
The conventional wisdom is that the party membership is overwhelmingly left wing and that a candidate who inherits the Corbyn mantle is a sure-fire winner. This ain’t necessarily so.
It is true that revulsion against the Blair/Brown inheritance and enthusiasm for the anti-austerity, anti-war and anti-system alternative has opened up Labour’s internal processes to an extent, but the right-wing grip on the party machinery remains difficult to dislodge.
More than that, Labour’s half-a-million-plus membership is, naturally and desirably, very heterogeneous.
Almost every tribe has lit its campfire inside Labour’s big teepee.
It was clear that in doubling down on its anti-Brexit messaging after the Brexit Party came top in the Euro elections that Labour would find it hard to keep its disparate tribes together.
Once it abandoned Corbyn’s initial pledge to respect the Brexit vote — a transparently honest and principled position which for some time remained unchallenged even by the most cynical of neoliberals (of all parties) — Labour began to flounder.
For anyone on the doorstep the election defeat was thus not unexpected, although the scale of it and the specific features of Labour’s losses in working-class areas came as a shock to many.
In a rush to judgement the journalist Paul Mason was among the first to claim “Corbynism has failed.”
Mason has made something of a specialism the device of praising the famously forbearing Corbyn while trashing his politics.
Where once Mason judged it unwise to trespass on the person of Corbyn himself and instead specialised in trumpeting the media chorus that Corbyn’s advisers were somehow the exclusive masters of Labour’s manifesto and election strategy, he is now openly contemptuous of the man.
“Jeremy needs to step down soon and install a caretaker leader with a different apparatus,” said Mason from the off.
It took Alice Perry, the local government representative on Labour’s NEC, to point out that the “Clause V” meeting which signed off on the manifesto included the party’s national executive committee, relevant shadow cabinet members and senior trade union representatives.
Mason’s hasty post-election verdict was that “Corbyn never understood what a left populist has to be. He never was able to express the gut hatred of political institutions and the rich that might have inspired workers in small English towns.”
The notion that a “gut hatred of political institutions and the rich” actually fuelled a revolt against the austerity policies that EU membership makes obligatory and that the contempt for a democratic Brexit decision by the political Establishment might lead workers in small English towns to find an alternative seems to have evaded Mason’s comprehension.
Which analysis of the election defeat commands a consensus in Labour’s ranks — not just the individual membership but the trade union affiliates — will have a big influence not just on who is elected leader but what kind of party will come into being in the next few years.
Even if it were possible to set the Brexit controversy aside, the socialist genie that Corbyn’s election set free cannot be put back into the lamp and whoever commands credibility as the figure best able to project a radical alternative to austerity and neoliberalism will be Labour’s best leader.
Mason’s distinctive contribution to this debate — besides tweeting a convergence of opinion around a Clive Lewis/Keir Starmer axis — is to project a foreign policy dimension that accords very closely to the Euro fanatics on Labour’s traditional right wing, the Foreign Office and intelligence nexus, the Nato enthusiasts and the right-wing media. All along suggesting that this is a left-wing agenda!
Responding to Rebecca Long Bailey’s opening shots in the Labour leadership campaign, Mason started a tweet, found it too short to encompass his great wisdom and panoramic grasp of history and went on to complain that he has been attacked for supporting Nato membership, being in favour of meeting the 2 per cent of GDP military spending target that Trump demands, the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent, intervention to back the losing side in the Syrian conflict and support for sanctions against Russia.
And all this when Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab insists that Britain is on the “same page as Donald Trump.”