Will there be a left challenger to Keir Starmer if Labour loses today’s Batley and Spen by-election? In recent days, MPs including Richard Burgon, Dawn Butler and Jon Trickett have all been identified as potential candidates. (John McDonnell, who stood for the leadership in 2007 and 2010, has privately ruled out another bid.)
But when the Socialist Campaign Group met last night, I’m told the conclusion was that a left challenger would not be able to win the 40 MP nominations (20 per cent) required to stand against an incumbent leader. This doesn’t make a bid impossible – some may feel compelled to respond to grassroots pressure – but it does make it unviable. Following the removal of the Labour whip from Jeremy Corbyn and Claudia Webbe, the group now numbers 32 Labour MPs, including former leadership candidates Diane Abbott, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Clive Lewis.
Were Starmer to resign, however, only 20 MP nominations (10 per cent) would be required, plus either five per cent of constituency parties or three affiliated groups (at least two of which must be trade unions) – a more achievable threshold. Though six to seven Campaign Group MPs are expected to back any bid by Angela Rayner, this would still leave enough potential support for a left candidate. However, this is one reason why few expect Starmer to resign even if Labour suffer a heavy defeat in Batley and Spen – the risk of allowing the left to regain control of the party is too great.
It is not only those on the left who have an interest in biding their time. Some in Labour hope to use this autumn’s party conference to rewrite the leadership election rules, giving MPs a greater say in the nomination and/or voting process. Were a leadership contest delayed until after this point, it could become significantly harder for a left candidate to make the ballot.
But yesterday’s Sky News poll of Labour members, putting support for Burgon as leader at just six per cent, compared to 35 per cent for Yvette Cooper, is a further deterrent to an early bid. Those with long memories will recall Tony Benn’s doomed 1988 leadership challenge to Neil Kinnock, which ended with the incumbent Labour leader winning by 89 per cent to 11 per cent. “It was appalling,” Benn recorded in his diary.