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What do Oxford students think about the Labour leadership race?

The Labour leadership campaign is gearing up into full swing, so now seems the best time to talk to Oxford students about their thoughts on the remaining candidates in the race to lead the Labour party and what should emerge of the process more generally. All the Oxford students I spoke to seemed to agree on one thing, albeit to varying degrees: the incoming leader to be more electable than their predecessor.

I sat down first with John Hadley, a 2nd year Merton student reading PPE. We talked about the bookies favourite Keir Starmer: “I’d say he’s the safe option; his primary asset seems to be that he comes off as prime ministerial — which is good in the sense that ideally the next Labour leader would look like a prime minister in waiting.” However, John was not convinced by the capacity of the former Director of Public Prosecutions to inspire. “(A)t the end of the day I’m not sure what direction he wants to take the party in or what policies he would like to see Labour propose. He’d be a fine leader, he just doesn’t inspire me as much as (Lisa) Nandy.”

Rebecca Long-Bailey is seen as the candidate of the left in the race, and she was in Oxford this week at a rally event with union and party members. John is both encouraged and concerned by her political reputation: “(P)ersonally I like her and I like the work she did on the green new deal/green industrial strategy as shadow business secretary, but I worry that she is seen by the public as too close to Corbyn and too left wing.” He is concerned that it will hinder Labour’s attempt to re-win the working class seats it lost last year. “Labour needs to reconnect with the areas it lost, and (where the party) has been losing ground in for decades, and sticking with the continuity Corbyn candidate is exactly the wrong way to do that.”

For these reasons, John’s pick of the bunch is Lisa Nandy: “I think she’s got a lot going for her: as shadow energy secretary under Ed Miliband she was calling for a green industrial revolution since over five years ago, as MP for Wigan and co-founder of the Centre for Towns she was calling attention to Labour’s struggles in towns even before the disastrous election result, and she has come into this race with the understanding that in order to win again Labour must find a way to connect the two parts of its coalition — the side that rightly champions the green new deal with the side that sees the value of protecting good union jobs in the energy sector.

“I think Nandy is the best candidate for healing that divide and bringing disaffected ex-Labour voters back into the fold.”

And finally, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, but I do not expect John to be so enthusiastic. He said, “I think she does a good job in media appearances and is able to make the case for her views well. But I worry that some of those views would end up being a liability if she is leader. She comes off as so pro-remain, sometimes to the point of condescension towards leavers (regardless of the truth of Caroline Flint’s claim about her statement about another MPs constituents) that I worry she would just further alienate working class voters and voters in towns that Labour so desperately needs to win back to gain power again.”

Despite backing Lisa Nandy, John was impressed by Starmer’s performance so far: “I’ve been surprised at how well Starmer has done in terms of MP and CLP nominations. It shows that both the PLP and the membership have finally agreed that electability is a very important factor for (the) leadership of the party.

He added that he was sought a campaign that looked more broadly at the candidates and policies, “I do hope that all of the candidates who have made it to this stage get a proper look in, and I’d like the focus to shift, slightly, away from electability and towards policy, but so far I’m generally happy with the way the race is shaping up and look forward to the next stages.”

Other students are less nuanced. I spoke to a number of people who were more dismissive about those offering an alternative to Corbyn’s policy direction. On condition of anonymity, one claimed that, “Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry are too right wing and Lisa Nandy is a big supporter of Blue Labour, which is sad for me because I’m from Wigan, her constituency.” Blue Labour claims the ideology of “radical and conservative socialism”, according to their website, and they have been known to promote conservative positions on social and international issues.

Lastly, Sean, a 1st year student at Mansfield, had this to say: “I’m not completely sure who I’m leaning towards voting for in this Labour leadership race. The main task is finding a way to unite the Labour heartlands with the metropolitan city vote — undoing the huge divides that Brexit caused. This isn’t an easy task but a split ticket between a Londoner/Northerner may seem the way forward.

“I do quite like Lisa Nandy’s messages which truly connect with the emerging national collectivist ideology of the heartlands, but she doesn’t have enough overall glamour or support. Additionally, we must make sure the next leader is media-savvy and won’t be cast in a negative light by the establishment. Possibly an even more difficult task; in this regard Keir Starmer may push through.

“Rebecca Long-Bailey must differentiate herself from being projected as a Corbyn continuation, nonetheless, she is a charismatic leader. Again, hard choice for me but I do feel somewhat positive about the future but still not sure which leader will fit this criteria the best.”

What emerges from all this is a desire for electability in the new leader, whether that is through the ability to inspire or flagship policies. Students are also looking for a break with the Corbyn’s unelectability, but not all are opposed to the continuation of his policies. Another trend which can be seen across the University, and both the leadership candidates, is the need for an ecologically-minded re-calibration of the economy, with ideas such as a ‘Green New Deal’ proving popular around the University.

There is also a need for unity in the next few years. Whether this is to enhance electability by uniting the front, or in favour of a following internally consistent policy, or both, remains to be seen…