Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
22 January 2020

Why Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry are gaining in the Labour leadership race

The exit of Jess Phillips from the contest, and focus group support, has benefited the two contenders. 

By Stephen Bush

If you wanted to script a better day for Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry, you almost couldn’t top it. Nandy bagged the long-expected GMB nomination, putting her inches away from the Labour leadership ballot, which also leaves Thornberry as the only candidate who needs Constituency Labour Party nominations to make the final round – there are hundreds still up for grabs and all she needs is 31 more in which she can persuade members to give her a go. 

Added to that, a Channel 4 focus group has anointed Nandy and Thornberry as the candidates who would add the most votes to Labour’s support. Now, in reality, I wouldn’t set much store by a single focus group of four relatively unknown politicians – but if you’re the Nandy or Thornberry campaigns your job isn’t to have a discussion about the best use of qualitative and quantitative data, it’s to persuade Labour members to vote for you and it’s a powerful weapon to do just that.

Elsewhere, Rebecca Long-Bailey has backed the adoption of a full parliamentary selection in every seat, whether it has a Labour MP or not. While there’s an argument to be made about the merits of a bona fide reselection process at every general election, it’s a message for the people already voting for her – which according to every scrap of data we have available, isn’t a big enough group of people to win the Labour leadership election. 

And Phillips, who according to every poll and scrap of data was in third place, above Thornberry and Nandy, has dropped out of the race. While Phillips’ campaign was very far from perfect – Ailbhe explains well how and why it ran out of steam so quickly – one of the things it did do well is persuade people to join and rejoin the Labour Party. Most of those voters may fade away, but those who don’t are the reason why Keir Starmer is now on course for a first-round victory

That’s the major difficulty for Thornberry and Nandy – yes, all the noise is being generated by their campaigns. Yes, Long-Bailey, the main challenger, doesn’t yet appear to be out of second gear. But perhaps the story of this leadership election isn’t a noisy one – it’s just Labour Party members quietly looking at the field and deciding that they think Starmer is the best bet. 

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

But the particular bit of solace for Nandy is that with Phillips gone, she is the only candidate running on a “change or die” pitch: which makes her well-placed to win over Phillips’ former voters, particularly if she can impress viewers of the televised hustings as much as she did MPs at the Parliamentary Labour Party hustings right at the start of this campaign.

Content from our partners
The shrinking road to net zero
The tree-planting misconception
Is your business ready for corporate climate reporting?