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15 January 2020

Keir Starmer is the favourite to be Labour leader, but the party’s ruling faction may have other plans

The most effective weapon has been control over mailing lists – and it is the Corbynite left who now have access to them.  

By Stephen Bush

The Labour Party is a lot like a newly formed state: it has a democratic constitution, but not a democratic culture. Whichever faction is in power uses the party’s standing orders as a stick with which to beat its internal opponents. During the Ed Miliband era, one Labour staffer explained that his long, corporate-sounding title was simply a polite synonym for “using the rulebook to fuck people”.

Whatever the politics of the people in charge, the tricks remain broadly the same. The tactical, and late, deployment of all-women shortlists to shut out well-placed men in favour of an anointed woman – or to redirect a strong female candidate from one seat to another to make way for a favoured son – is one. The removal of dangerous opponents at the longlisting stage is another.

This explains why, though everything suggests that Keir Starmer is the candidate to beat in the Labour leadership, most astute watchers haven’t yet written off Rebecca Long-Bailey. She has the support of the party’s power brokers, which is always useful as far as intra-Labour combat is concerned, but is not always a decisive factor.

Several Corbynites were congratulating themselves for foiling an attempt at preventing Labour’s National Executive Committee officers from declaring a preference in the leadership race: a motion that would have made binding the existing convention that the departing leader does not involve themselves in the contest to decide their successor. Jeremy Corbyn promptly disappointed them by telling the BBC that he would not be making an endorsement of any kind. “A lot of people, they only care about this sort of thing when it hurts them, whether they’re on the left of the party or the right,” explained one close ally, “But Jeremy, well, unfortunately for us, is not like that.”

That attitude doesn’t extend to much of the Corbynite left. (In a measure of how limited the appetite for internal pluralism is, Clive Lewis, the Labour MP most sincere about opening up the party’s internal structures, was able to attract the backing of just four MPs, with the bulk of the Labour left massing behind Long-Bailey.)

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Historically, the most effective weapon in internal contests has been control over the mailing lists. Access to these lists is, traditionally, sharply restricted by Labour headquarters to ensure that its preferred candidates are on first-name terms with party members long before their rivals even get a glimpse at their phone numbers. Direct experience of being on the losing side of that trick was one reason Jon Lansman, one of the Labour left’s longest-serving and wiliest operatives, opted not to shut down Corbyn’s first campaign for the leadership, but to turn it into its own organisation: Momentum. Momentum retains the details of the large numbers of party members who backed Corbyn in 2015 and 2016, which gives it a standing advantage over its opponents within Labour. Thanks to the left’s control over the Labour Party machinery – won in large part because of Lansman’s efforts – it is now Labour’s non-Corbynite factions that find themselves unable to talk to their target voters.

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This year none of the candidates will receive access to the mailing lists of party members until they have already made it on to the ballot: a departure from the usual process whereby they receive them as soon as they have declared. Campaigners will have just four days between receiving party members’ data and ballots arriving in homes and inboxes on 21 February.

That has two consequences. First, it makes the initial month of the leadership election a battle in which only Momentum can compete. That is, of course, an advantage for Long-Bailey, whom Momentum supports. Second, it increases the chances that some candidates won’t even make it on to the ballot paper. Why? Because thanks to the new leadership rules agreed in the autumn of 2017, for the first time party members have a direct say not only on who wins the contest but on who makes the ballot. To do so, would-be candidates need not only endorsement from 22 of their colleagues – a hurdle cleared by Starmer, Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips and Emily Thornberry – but also the approval of either the party’s various trade unions and other affiliates or the backing of 5 per cent of Labour Party members.

Starmer and Long-Bailey are both highly likely to make the ballot thanks to the support of trade unions. With most in the labour movement believing that the GMB trade union will back Nandy, she is also likely, although not certain, to reach it via the same route.

For Phillips and Thornberry, however, the lack of direct access to members could kill their leadership hopes stone dead.

But being the preferred candidate of the Labour bureaucracy isn’t a guaranteed ticket to the top; most party staffers were privately rooting for Yvette Cooper in 2015 and Owen Smith in 2016 after he challenged Corbyn. Both candidates suffered a crushing defeat. In fact, not since David Miliband won a majority among party members in 2010 has the candidate of “the office” managed to prevail (and in that instance David Miliband still lost to his younger brother, because he was defeated under the old rules of the electoral college).

Long-Bailey’s problem so far is that she has yet to find an issue on which there is clear blue water between her and Starmer – or Nandy, for that matter. And while there remains little difference between her platform and that of her rivals, Labour members may well opt for Keir Starmer, the candidate who looks to be straight out of central casting, no matter how short a window he has to talk to activists directly. Nonetheless, Rebecca Long-Bailey’s proximity to the party’s power brokers means that she cannot be ruled out.

This article appears in the 15 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing