Unofficially, the race to succeed Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader began on the night of the party’s catastrophic general election defeat in December.
That was three and a half months ago – and there is still over a week to go until Keir Starmer succeeds Corbyn.
I say that because it’s almost unimaginable that Rebecca Long Bailey or Lisa Nandy will pull off an almighty upset to beat Starmer to the top job. The Shadow Brexit Secretary has been the frontrunner since December and many polls suggest that his win will be a done deal in the first round of voting.
It begs the question: why such a painfully long leadership contest, when the likely outcome hasn’t changed at all? And does the contest even matter any more? We find ourselves in the midst of a historic global emergency, a time when the election of a new Leader of the Opposition might not even make the headlines. Many have expressed surprise that the contest is still on, especially following the Liberal Democrats’ decision to delay their leadership election until spring 2021. Others have suggested that Labour should have brought forward the result of the election in order to let the new leader get to work on their response to the crisis.
It’s safe to say that Labour’s role will be dramatically changed. Ideology, manifesto promises, and dramatic spending plans have been cast aside as the government introduces sweeping measures to support workers and prop up an economy set to undergo a recession that could dwarf the one that followed the financial crisis of 2008-9. It’s fair to say that few are thinking about ‘electability’ at the moment. In fact, The Guardian touted the possibility of Starmer – sorry, the next Labour leader – joining a ‘Covid coalition’ government by attending COBRA and Cabinet meetings after 4 April.
The leadership candidates have found themselves in a tight spot: scrutiny is still important, but criticism of the government’s response to the pandemic could be wrongly construed as undermining the national effort to confront this unique moment in history. With the Conservatives riding high at 50% in some polls, the candidates must also be itching to remind the public of the issues that the Conservatives would rather bury, while recognising the need to put aside partisanship in an era of crisis – the Prime Minister and Health Secretary two of the latest to test positive for the virus.
The new Labour leadership team won’t be able to fall back on the usual criticism and scrutiny of the government of the day that Oppositions are used to. Instead, Labour will have to win back the trust of the voters that have deserted the party by playing a constructive and meaningful role in guiding the country through this difficult moment. That will mean talking about the implications of the pandemic for a whole range of issues.
For instance, what will happen to Brexit? Why is the NHS at breaking point just a few weeks into the emergency? Will new measures for the 5 million self-employed have an immediate effect? For now, keeping up pressure on the government could save lives and livelihoods.
Nandy has, it seems, been most vocal about the government’s strategy, demanding the establishment of a ‘National COBRA’ to include trade unions, business and community leaders in the government’s response, and reflecting on the need for an internationalist approach to solutions in her near daily commentaries on the government’s response.
Long Bailey was also critical of the government’s delay in offering help to self-employed workers and, on Monday, called for the creation of a ‘National Food Service’. On Twitter, Long Bailey criticised the ‘half measures’ taken by the government last week, adding that ‘the poorest must not pay the price of the crisis’.
Starmer hasn’t been as silent as some of his detractors say, and has offered criticisms of the government’s response in the aftermath of Boris Johnson’s press conferences. But for the man who will almost certainly be the Leader of the Opposition in just over a week’s time, Starmer has been strikingly quiet.
It’s possible that, as leader-in-waiting, Starmer is seeking to avoid accusations that he is seeking political capital from criticising government measures. Yet it’s clear that there have been big holes in the Chancellor’s relief package and, bit by bit, the government has given way to pressure from MPs, trade unions and the media. Starmer can’t be said to have played a particularly visible role in that effort.
I’ve made very clear my thoughts about who Labour should pick as its next leader, but I’ll leave them aside for now. Beyond coronavirus, there’s no doubting the scale of Labour’s challenge if it ever wants to get back into government. The Conservatives have just opened up a twenty-six point lead in one poll.
And if Starmer wins, Labour will have to justify its decision to choose yet another white man (not to mention an Oxford-educated one) 45 years since Margaret Thatcher became the first woman to lead the Conservative Party. Perhaps Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s legacy won’t be the big problems we thought they would be for Starmer, but his election will still be met with much scepticism.
It isn’t surprising that Starmer’s victory is almost certain. Initially, we might have assumed that the rise of the left in the Labour Party since 2015 would guarantee victory for Long Bailey, the candidate of Corbyn’s team and one of the architects of the 2019 manifesto. But Long Bailey has long been struggling, while the best efforts of Lisa Nandy haven’t allowed the backbencher to catch up with her Shadow Cabinet rivals. And the coronavirus emergency has simply paused the race.
The pain of defeat in December has stunned the Labour membership, and the party is set to try something different. It will be Keir Starmer – hardly a favourite of Corbyn’s allies – who leads the Labour Party from next week, his deputy most likely the Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner, who has openly distanced herself from the Corbyn project. Nandy may do much better than expected, and Long Bailey much worse – but I think this one’s a fairly safe bet.
So, does the contest still matter? Yes, it does. Because communication and leadership are going to be essential to the way forward.
Could it have been postponed? Probably.
But while the new Labour leader will have to guide the party through a transformed political landscape that would have been unthinkable in December, what our politicians do over the coming weeks and months might just matter more than ever.