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16 January 2020

What Labour leadership candidates are telling the grassroots – and why

The statements circulated by the contenders to local parties reveal much about how they intend to win - and the post-Corbyn Labour Party's political consensus.

By Patrick Maguire

With nominations from MPs and MEPs in the bag, the five Labour leadership candidates to have reached the second round of the race to succeed Jeremy Corbyn must now woo trade unions, affiliated socialist societies, and constituency parties.

For the contenders who might struggle to get on the ballot via the trade union and affiliate route – namely Jess Phillips and Emily Thornberry – securing the nominations of 33 CLPs is a matter of existential concern. What, then, is their pitch to the grassroots?

The New Statesman has obtained the short statements from each candidates that are circulated at each CLP’s nomination meeting. Each distils their pitches to the selectorate to their purest form – and, taken together, they outline the broad contours of the political ground every leadership candidate thinks it imprudent to stray beyond. One might call the post-Corbyn consensus.

Emily Thornberry

The Shadow Foreign Secretary only just scraped through the first stage of the race – securing the requisite 22 MP and MEP nominations with minutes to spare. So it is perhaps a little ironic that her pitch leans heavily on her strength at Westminster: both in terms of her experience and record as a parliamentary performer.

Having rooted herself firmly in the left traditions of anti-fascism, gay liberation trade unionism and local activism, she frames herself as the best candidate to beat Boris Johnson by virtue of being the only one to have already beaten him – at the despatch box during his stint at the Foreign Office. She is also careful to praise – and defend – the role members play in Labour’s internal democracy.

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Dear Friends,

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I believe I have the strength, experience and passion to take the fight back to the Tories now, and lead us on the long hard road to victory in five years.

When I was seven, my dad walked out, leaving us penniless. A Labour councillor came to our rescue and found us a council house. I joined the party as a teenager, canvassing and collecting subs on my own in Hammersmith.

Ever since, I’ve been on the front-line of the great battles we’ve fought together, from fighting the NF and representing striking miners, print-workers and sea-farers, to marching against Section 28, the Poll Tax and Iraq.

Since coming to Parliament in 2005, I’ve fought against 90 days detention, Climate Change and Universal Credit, and campaigned for human rights, social care and peace.

I’ve led the charge as Shadow Foreign Secretary against Trump and the war in Yemen and, for two years, shadowing Boris Johnson, I got the better of him every time.

Our greatest strength lies not just in our party’s history, values, or achievements in government, but from the army of union members, CLPs and student activists who’ve inspired all of that, and continue inspiring it today.

Our party is at its best when we’re listening to our members and answerable to them, and our best policies are driven by the experience of our members.

That’s the way I’d lead our party, lead the fight against Johnson, and lead us into power. By standing up and fighting back together.


Jess Phillips

Though the MP for Birmingham Yardley is unquestionably the candidate of unreconstructed Corbynscepticism, there is no overt personal criticism of the incumbent leader in her statement – not even Jeremy Corbyn’s most irreconcilable internal opponents are that daft.

It does, however, offer a defence of the New Labour governments of 1997 to 2010 – albeit one infused with a universalist policy prospectus that does not read all that dissimilarly to the 2017 or 2019 manifestos. Not unwisely, the explicit political criticisms she makes of the current leadership are framed as failings of Labour values, specifically anti-racism, redistribution, and Remain.

Cannily, given the 73 Holyrood CLPs up for grabs, she is the only candidate to cast themselves as a unionist. She signs off with a refrain that will by now be familiar to most followers of politics: that only she, the anti-Johnson, can beat Boris Johnson.

We’re all better off, when we’re all better off.

I live by that motto. It hangs on my wall at home.

I wouldn’t be competing to be the next Labour leader if it wasn’t for the last Labour government.

I’m proof that Labour governments change lives.

I had my first son at 23. Tax credits and Sure Start were a lifeline – and made me feel that someone somewhere cared about people like us.

After a decade of Tory austerity, people have got used to expecting less. We have to turn that round. We have to show that life can be better. And I want to lead a party where members have a real say on policy.

Free childcare. Universal social care. A properly funded education system. Homelessness: a thing of the past. Hope instead of fear. Celebrating immigration and ending indefinite detention.

Creating the jobs of the future through climate transition. And standing up for the Union.

Labour governments can do these things.

But to win, we must be honest with the public, and with ourselves.

That’s why I’ve never shied away from speaking out when I thought we were doing the wrong thing – whether that was the handling of antisemitism, waving through Tory tax cuts for the well-off or equivocating over Brexit. 

Boris Johnson fears what he can’t understand. And that includes people like me.

I can win back trust because I am actually honest. And I can beat Boris Johnson because he can’t handle people like me.

Keir Starmer

The Shadow Brexit Secretary and joint frontrunner’s statement is an exercise in hammering home three messages. The first is that Starmer’s well-remunerated legal career – sometimes cited as a red flag by rivals – is in fact philosophically continuous with his career and aspirations in Labour politics rather than at odds with them.

The repeated references to winning elections – starting with May’s locals – and Labour’s achievements in government serve to reinforce the second: that he is the most prime ministerial, and thus electable, candidate on the ballot.

And in defending Labour’s “values”, “radicalism” and Corbynite economic, foreign and environmental policy, he stresses the third, final and perhaps most important message as far as the selectorate is concerned: that this metropolitan smoothie will not rat on the left.

I’ve spent my life fighting for justice, standing up to the powerful and against the powerless.

I’m now standing to be leader of the Labour Party because I believe I can help unite our movement, take on the Tories and build a better future.

When Labour is united we can achieve anything.

The NHS, the minimum wage, the Equal Pay Act, peace in Northern Ireland: impossible dreams made possible by Labour governments.

We now need to provide an effective opposition to Boris Johnson.

We need to start winning elections again – starting with the local elections in May, building to 2024.

We won’t do that by abandoning our values or the radicalism we have rediscovered.

We are an anti-austerity party. We believe in common ownership. We want to build a more peaceful world through a human-rights based foreign policy. We must hardwire the Green New Deal into our every part of our politics.

Those are the pillars on which we can build a radical agenda for the future.

Inequalities of every type – power, education, health and wealth – are so ingrained that only a fundamental shift can address them.

Our task is to make that agenda relevant to the 2020s and 2030s: to deliver economic justice, social justice and climate justice.

That is a huge task.

This leadership contest can only be one part of it.

With your help and with all parts of the labour and trade union movement coming together, I believe we can win again. Another future is possible.

Lisa Nandy

The Wigan MP, as remarkable as it may sound for a candidate only recently detached from the epithet of rising star, is one of the race’s relative veterans, having served since 2010. Like Thornberry, she makes much of her parliamentary, and, crucially, frontbench experience – one of the few failsafe ways in which she can stress left-wing bona fides that colleagues believe have been undermined by her resignation from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet in 2016, association with Owen Smith, and support for a negotiated Brexit.

Like the other candidates, she stakes a claim to ideological legitimacy by stressing her record on public ownership and climate. We do not have to wait long til the obligatory tribute to member-led democracy either. So too a variation on the universal pledge to replace factionalism with unity.

There is no mention of the t-word – towns – but a call for regional devolution as a remedy to the collapse of Labour’s historic coalition does feature prominently. In demanding boldness in response to last month’s election loss, she also implicitly criticises those pitching themselves as candidates of continuity – namely Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey. 

As the only BAME candidate in the race, she also alludes to the question that Starmer has yet to answer convincingly: why must Labour elect another middle-aged white man from London?

It has been a shattering election defeat. For us to rebuild trust with communities in every corner of the country, it will take a different kind of leadership and a different kind of leader.

It will take bravery to choose a leader that doesn’t look or sound like the leaders we’ve had before.

But now is not the time to steady the ship or play it safe. Our greatest strength has always been our movement and our deep and broad roots in very different parts of the country. That is why we must end the infighting, and empower our activists and councillors to make lasting change.

Together, we can rebuild that ‘red bridge’ that unites both sides of the electoral coalition and has propelled us into government just three times in a century. We must take power from Westminster and Whitehall and restore it to those places that feel they no longer have a stake in our national story.

From working with child refugees and rough sleepers, to a decade in Parliament opposing free schools and tackling climate change as the Shadow Secretary of State – I know that Labour is at our best when we are bold, and have the courage of our convictions. I have never shied away from difficult battles and I never will.

I am standing to be leader of the Labour Party to lead us back into power. The road will be steep but it doesn’t have to be long. We win together.

Rebecca Long-Bailey

As one would expect, the Shadow Business Secretary’s pitch is the most overtly ideological. But it is not uncritical. For all the eyebrows raised at Long-Bailey’s questionable decision to rate Jeremy Corbyn 10 out of 10 as Labour leader, she is remarkably candid about the failings of the current regime. 

On Brexit, anti-Semitism, factionalism and the 2019 campaign, she leads with her chin. The subtext is clear enough: ideological continuity need not mean repeating unforced errors. Like Starmer, she makes deliberate reference to the local elections that come just weeks after the coronation of Corbyn’s successor – an attempt to prove that the Shadow Brexit Secretary does not have a monopoly on electability.

The positive case she sketches out for a Long-Bailey leadership bears a family resemblance to the basic pitch made by the other candidates – if a steroid-enhanced one. Commitments to tackling climate change, regional devolution, redistribution and public ownership all feature, but are expressed in much stronger ideological language.

Tellingly, hers is the only pitch to feature the word “socialist”, or, indeed, to quote a named Labour politician. That it is Nye Bevan, the idol of the Labour grassroots, tells you all you need to know.

Like all Labour members, I am devastated we lost the election. After a decade of Conservative government we face entrenched inequality, 4 million children growing up in poverty, a climate emergency and an emboldened far right.

We had a chance to help turn back the tide, but we failed. The starting point in the leadership election is to be honest and self-critical about why and then look forward and forge our path to power.

We lost trust with voters – over Brexit, over antisemitism, over a lack of unity in our party and because we failed to set out a convincing narrative for what we would do in government.

We have to learn the lessons of this but we can’t despair. We have another round of elections in May and the escalating crises we face mean that building a winning vision of a socialist future has never been so urgent.

My vision is one of a democratic, aspirational and decarbonised society that hands wealth and power back to ordinary people. I believe we can build a green, democratic future that bridges the deep divides in our electoral coalition.

But we must democratise our party and we must embrace radical democratic reform in the country, taking power out of Westminster. In the words of the great Nye Bevan: “the purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away.”

This is my ambition – an aspirational, socialist, democratic future that can unite the country and build our path back to power.