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30 December 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 11:55am

Rebecca Long-Bailey breaks her silence with a pitch for union support

By Patrick Maguire

Rebecca Long-Bailey has finally spoken: the putative continuity candidate and joint favourite for the Labour leadership has set out her stall with with a Guardian column in which she all but confirms she will run, and endorses her flatmate Angela Rayner for the deputy leadership too. 

What’s the pitch? Much of what she writes has been said or written before – by the other candidates. Like Keir Starmer before her, the shadow business secretary says – unsurprisingly – that policy wasn’t the problem. She instead blames Labour’s “triangulation” over Brexit. “There are many lessons to learn from the defeat,” she writes, “but it’s clear we didn’t lose because of our commitments to scrap universal credit, invest in public services or abolish tuition fees.”

Like Clive Lewis, she backs greater internal party democracy, and, like Lisa Nandy, she calls for “real wealth and power” to be redistributed to the regions. Anyone looking for even implicit criticism of Jeremy Corbyn will be disappointed – not that anyone in the parliamentary Labour party expected it. MPs unsold on Long-Bailey before today have not changed their minds. What is raising eyebrows, however, is Long-Bailey’s call for the party to adopt a “progressive patriotism” to help win back erstwhile heartlands that have gone blue at the past two elections. 

That isn’t the sort of language that finds a happy audience in some quarters of the Corbynite left, as envinced by a rolling backlash on social media today. Crucially, however, it is an analysis that trade union leaders like Unite’s Len McCluskey and the CWU’s Dave Ward believe in, at least in principle. They believed Labour’s campaign lacked a compelling narrative to sell its programme in precisely the sort of seats it lost to the Conservatives. We do not know whether they will endorse the remedy, but the likes of McCluskey and Ward will at least be heartened by Long-Bailey’s diagnosis – which also emphasises at some length that the unions are at the heart of her vision for the party and country. 

That messaging is arguably the most significant thing about Long-Bailey’s opening shot. Yes, some members in the selectorate will be dismayed and disappointed by her language. But in pitching so shrewdly for union backing – a must for reaching the ballot , preventing rivals from doing so and winning members in serious numbers once there – the benefits could yet outweigh the costs, especially with Ian Lavery primed to pounce.

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