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8 February 2020updated 29 Jun 2021 3:42pm

Labour councillors heckle Rebecca Long-Bailey at leadership hustings

Lisa Nandy and Jim McMahon — who was speaking on Keir Starmer's behalf  — received a warm reception at the local government hustings in Nottingham, as issues with the NEC and the membership were repeatedly raised.

By George Grylls

It was never going to be Rebecca Long-Bailey’s crowd. The local government leadership hustings took place in Nottingham today before an audience of muttering discontents.

“As a councillor I have felt very much at the coalface over the past few years,” said Joy Squires from Worcester. “And the party doesn’t take much of an interest.”

“I’m frustrated that we’ve almost been forgotten,” said Mick Roberts, 44 years a councillor in Rushmoor.

Labour’s councils have been caught in a perfect storm. Their budgets have been halved in real terms by central government since 2010. With the Conservatives outsourcing blame, councillors believe fringe elements of the Labour membership have responded to the loss of public services by shooting the messenger  — attacking Labour councils who have delivered austerity rather than the government who decided it. Then there is the widespread perception that local government draws the short straw when it comes to gaining access to Labour’s levers of power.

“There needs to be a wholesale review of structures  — we are not there at the table,” said Roberts.

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Against this background, the leadership candidates took to the stage at the Crowne Plaza in Nottingham for the Labour local government hustings. Keir Starmer  — whose mother-in-law is gravely ill  — took a leave of absence, sending in his stead the MP for Oldham Jim McMahon.

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“Jim McMahon had a slight advantage,” said Laura Robertson, a councillor in Liverpool. “It’s like sending out Jurgen Klopp in front of the Kop.”

“Everybody loves Jim McMahon,” said Squires of the former Labour leader of the Local Government Association. “That was a very good move indeed.”

So whilst all the candidates were able to indulge the beleaguered councillors in some head-patting, it was McMahon who really knew which carrots to dangle  — better pay, pensions and bursaries  — and he did so in the knowledge that he would not have to deliver on his promises. “I’m really enjoying this  — Jim’s gone rogue,” joked Nandy.

A demand for greater NEC representation was acceded to by all the candidates very quickly, while Nandy’s proposal to have local government figures sit in on shadow cabinet meetings drew applause. But there were moments of outright hostility reserved for Rebecca Long-Bailey. 

The anger has been welling up for some time, and Long-Bailey took the hit for the unpopularity of the Corbyn leadership amongst councillors. One source of bitterness was the money sent by local government to campaign organisers at Labour Party HQ. When Long-Bailey said that she did not know where the £2 million sent by councils went, one audience member audibly shouted “Bullshit” and another exclaimed in disbelief “You’re on the NEC!” And when Long-Bailey talked up the importance of community organisers — a Corbyn pet project  — there were gasps of exasperation.

“People in Wales being told by people in Southside what the focus of their campaign should be is ridiculous,” said Roberts.

Emily Thornberry  — still struggling to make it onto the final ballot  — is in need of something special. And with new hustings rules allowing interventions, she tried her best (the rules promised much, but delivered little in the way of open debate). At one point she talked about her decision to remain in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. In reference to Rebecca Long-Bailey, she dismissed the people who were “up late eating pizza” whilst she was working through the night taking on multiple ministerial briefs. Earlier in the campaign Long-Bailey had taken a swipe at fellow shadow cabinet members who had resigned in protest at Corbyn’s leadership in 2016, saying she was forced to pull an all-nighter as a result.

Despite the audience’s delight in these sorts of lines, Thornberry remains the outsider. The room’s ideal result would see Starmer crowned leader and Nandy and possibly Thornberry both awarded shadow cabinet positions. But it must be noted that Labour’s councillors tend to be older, balder, whiter and maler than the wider membership  — something which all the candidates talked about with eloquence. Their vote will not impact the result, and their opinions do not precisely map onto the tendencies of the wider selectorate.

The hustings today will not affect the result. But they were illustrative. They demonstrated that there was significant pushback among the various constituents of the Labour party against the structure created by Corbyn. His legacy is the structure — the majority he commands on the NEC, the allies he has in party HQ, the community organisers and campaign groups he has helped create. This a quiet struggle taking place in the Labour party that has the potential to turn into open warfare.