The End of the Corbyn Era

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

As the Labour Party chooses its next leader, the future of the Corbyn project hangs in the balance and the field of candidates has already begun to narrow. Party members have to decide who will best stand up for their interests.

The frontrunner is Keir Starmer, with Rebecca Long-Bailey in second place and Lisa Nandy third. Anti-Corbyn candidate Jess Phillips was the first to drop out, while Emily Thornberry has floundered despite her record on the front bench.

Starmer, Long-Bailey and Thornberry have all served on the front bench in Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet. Lisa Nandy has the advantage of being an outsider. She has been a consistent sceptic of the People’s Vote campaign and voiced her concerns about it from the start.

At the same time, Nandy is from the ‘soft-left’ of the party putting her in the anti-Corbyn camp. She has opposed calls for open selections – whereby candidates and sitting MPs have to face their constituents rather than having their seats handed to them.

Unfortunately, the Labour Party has been run like Tammany Hall since its inception. Parliamentary candidates are flown into constituencies over the heads of local activists and voters. This was how the Labour right maintained its stranglehold for decades. Thus, the spectre of open selection.

So far Long-Bailey is the only viable candidate to back open selections. Nandy has ruled it out, whereas Starmer and Thornberry are silent on this question. The future of the Corbyn project will be determined in this election.

‘Corbynism’, if there is such a thing, was an attempt to open up the party to grassroots activism. Either the radical project for greater democracy will succeed, or the party will retreat into the stagnant water of centrism.

The return of the centrists

Both Nandy and Starmer backed former lobbyist Owen Smith in the 2016 coup attempt against Corbyn. The Smith campaign was waged just after the Brexit referendum in a scorched-earth strategy to prevent the left from making gains as the Tories faced a crisis over their own leadership.

More than 100,000 members were suspended in the run-up to the 2016 leadership election. Fortunately, the election rules allowed members to sign up (albeit for £25) as ‘supporters’ to vote in the contest. As a result, Corbyn won with an increased mandate.

The bitter conflict between Labour members and right-wing MPs spilled into the media. Someone like Jess Phillips was never going to win the leadership election. Starmer, on the other hand, played a much smarter game. He aligned himself with Corbyn as soon as he won and never broke with him.

Today, Starmer has defended Corbyn’s record in the media. Though there are other signs of what the Starmer campaign is about. The brave lawyer has hired Owen Smith’s former campaign finance manager and Labour First’s national organiser to help him.

In case you’re not familiar with the sectarian minutiae of Labour politics, Labour First is a right-wing group with roots going back to the 1980s when Neil Kinnock waged war against Militant. The group was revived once Corbyn became leader with the aim of smashing the ‘hard-left’.

Of course, Long-Bailey is being portrayed as the ‘continuity Corbyn’ candidate, while Starmer is being construed as ‘continuity Blair’ by some critics. Both characterisations are over-simplifications because neither fully fits the profile of Corbyn or Blair.

Things have moved forward in Labour. The National Executive Committee (NEC) is now populated with socialist activists and not just the same old machine politicians. Meanwhile Blairism has become a pejorative word.

Right-wingers feel obliged to distance themselves from the man who supported the invasion of Iraq. This is a step forward from the days when Third Way assumptions dominated the party and its governance.

So if the Labour right recaptures the leadership, the story won’t simply follow the same path as Kinnock in the 80s. It’s clear the centrist and right-wing candidates all see that they have to triangulate left-wing policies to gain power.

Many members fear the right will expel them if it retakes power. However, it’s much more likely the leadership would attempt to curtail the small gains the left has made and get its people into key positions and put Momentum in a box. This would achieve the same end without the ‘messy’ work of mass expulsions.

The European question

A big section of the membership wants a pro-European leader. Many Labour left activists wanted Clive Lewis to be in the race for the sake of raising the level of debate. All of the candidates are Remainers, however, there are fine distinctions to pick through.

Rebecca Long-Bailey was a Remainer in 2016 and a sceptic of the calls for a fresh public vote. Once the referendum became Labour policy, Long-Bailey towed the party line. By contrast, Lisa Nandy was a sceptic and maintained her critical position.

Meanwhile Starmer and Thornberry were agitating not just for a new referendum, but for Labour to back Remain. Starmer has the upper-hand over Thornberry because he was the face of Labour’s Brexit strategy. Yet he received constant praise from the same liberal newspapers that attacked Labour for not being anti-Brexit enough.

This is another reason why Starmer is positioning himself as a born-again socialist. He knows he can win over a slew of left-wing voters within the party base. His credentials as a pro-European do give him a strong position in the polls, but it’s not enough on its own.

The Long-Bailey campaign faces two challenges. Firstly, the Starmer campaign has the upper-hand of backing an anti-Brexit position that is still popular in the party. Secondly, the Nandy campaign can siphon off Eurosceptic support. It’s unclear how much space there is for Long-Bailey to carve out a position.

What is clear is that the next election will be fought in a post-Brexit environment. This could be an opportunity to get back to class issues and rebuild the party’s reach in the North and the Midlands. This won’t be easy, but it’s the only choice the Labour left has now.

Josh White is the author of Goodbye United Kingdom: Descent into Chaos (2015-2022).