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18 December 2019updated 13 Jul 2021 11:40am

Can Emily Thornberry remind Labour of her qualities?

By Stephen Bush

For the last three years, the consensus among most well-informed Labour watchers has been that the candidate to beat for the next Labour leadership election is Emily Thornberry.

She is the most experienced frontbench contender – she was first elected in 2005, a decade before Keir Starmer, Jess Philips or Rebecca Long-Bailey, and five years before Lisa Nandy. She’s consistently played the game of Labour politics better than most in that group. She nominated Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, swallowed her private disappointment at being overlooked for a major frontbench role in his first Shadow Cabinet, and stuck by him during the doomed coup in 2016. She was rewarded with the role of shadow foreign secretary, where she consistently got the better of Boris Johnson at the despatch box. In her role as first secretary of state, she filled in for Corbyn at PMQs, she regularly bested both Damian Green and David Lidington. She has a heavyweight staff: her press aide, Damian McBride, is a famed operator who worked for Gordon Brown. In 2017, expecting to gain votes but lose seats, the committed long-serving Corbynites planned to throw their weight behind Thornberry, the candidate closest to them and most able to secure support within the PLP. She was spoken favourably of by the major trades union leaders, including Len McCluskey.

Yet she enters a race that she was a long time expected to win comfortably as a contender, yes, but as the third best-placed behind Rebecca Long-Bailey and Keir Starmer, and quite a way behind too. What happened?

Thornberry has fallen victim to a number of events outside her control. The first is the rise of Long-Bailey and the change to Labour’s nomination process which both mean that committed Corbynite MPs can get one of their own on the ballot without having to rely on a Corbyn-adjacent MP. The second is that her position in Labour’s Brexit debate – in which she aligned with John McDonnell on the need for Labour to switch from its pro-Brexit position and against Len McCluskey – cost her in terms of her favoured position with the party’s power brokers. The third is Labour’s heavy defeat ran through largely Leave-voting constituencies and the perception – whether correct or incorrect – that Labour must demonstrate change through the background and biography of its new leader.

Thornberry’s announcement – like Starmer before her, not a formal announcement but via the Guardian, which along with the BBC will be the vital arena in winning this contest  – is an attempt to pivot away from that and back towards her strengths: the subtext is essentially “Look, guys, yes, I have an Islington constituency but I’m the best all-round politician running for this and if you think that some neophyte is going to do better than me simply because they have a constituency the right side of Watford I have a bridge to sell you in Redcar”.

She has a point. Throughout much of the New Labour era, the Conservative party convinced itself that it could never win with an Etonian leader again. It’s most politically effective leader of the last three decades is David Cameron (an Old Etonian) and its most electorally successful one is Boris Johnson (an Old Etonian). Thornberry has consistently shown herself to be the active Labour politician with the best grasp of how to navigate the party’s internal politics. Does that suggest that she, like Johnson, has the ability to overcome the issues of her brand and her perception among the public? We can’t say for certain, but we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand.  

Will her pitch work? I don’t know. The fascinating thing about this leadership contest is, in 2015, frankly, only one candidate was fighting a particularly effective campaign: Jeremy Corbyn. It wasn’t the only reason he won but he benefited from the fact that none of the other candidates put their best foot forward. Both of the candidates to announce today have presented the best possible argument for their candidacies – which means that this leadership contest will, if nothing else, be harder to predict than the last one.

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