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17 January 2020

Will Rebecca Long-Bailey’s views on abortion affect her Labour leadership campaign?

Controversy over Long-Bailey’s message to her local deanery may overshadow her speech in Manchester tonight, in which she’ll launch her campaign for the fifth time. 

By Stephen Bush

Just how many times will the Labour leadership candidates launch their campaigns? Rebecca Long-Bailey will launch hers for the fifth time today with a speech in Manchester – and if you think that sounds excessive, remember that she is the middle of the pack as far as launch announcements are concerned, tied with Keir Starmer and behind Lisa Nandy with seven.

But this is a very different flavour of launch, the first since her campaign was retooled. I’m told that the authors of her first two launch pieces, for the Guardian and Tribune, have been quietly binned. Her latest, which sets out the pitch she’ll make in her speech this evening, also for the Guardian, is a striking improvement on those.

That may be overshadowed by the row about reproductive rights, and Long-Bailey’s message to her local deanery, in which she spoke frankly about her opposition to abortions after the 24th week in the case of disability and her personal opposition to abortion, which she would “never contemplate”.

The view both that abortion is not a route that they would ever choose themselves, but that legal and safe abortions should be available as a matter of choice is not an uncommon one among the Parliamentary Labour Party, perhaps even a majority view among its religious cohort. This is the position that Liberal Democrat strategists wanted Tim Farron to take in the 2017 election, but for a variety of reasons, he was unable to do so.

That helped to wreck the 2017 Liberal Democrat campaign. Will this have a similar effect for Long-Bailey? I doubt it, personally, precisely because I always thought that had Farron been able to plainly set out the difference between his religious outlook and his policy position, most people would have been able to accept that. Long-Bailey is already occupying the space that Farron could not. If she loses, it won’t be because of her message to Salford Deanery.

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But I could be wrong. The subtext of Long-Bailey’s leadership pitch is that a change of tone on issues of security and nation – progressive patriotism, a clear and affirmative answer on the use of the nuclear deterrent – allied with the economic pitch of Corbyn 1.0 can win power. One of the risks that Lisa Nandy is grappling with is, how do you become the candidate with a vision for towns without being seen by Labour Party members as the candidate for social conservatism? Long-Bailey may have a similar set of risks – and her overall pitch may mean that a largely secular membership is unable to differentiate between the positions of Farron and Long-Bailey.

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