The Labour Leadership Election: Which topics will dominate discussion?
Dods Monitoring's Aaron Revel considers the key themes likely to play out as Labour seek a replacement for Jeremy Corbyn.
Greeting the dawn
Many Labour members and activists would have greeted the dawning of the new decade in a state of despondency. The December defeat was the party’s fourth in a row and the worst in terms of seats since 1935. However, with the raft of mayoral and local elections over the course of this year, dejection is a luxury the party cannot afford.
Earlier this week the National Executive Committee outlined the timeline for the forthcoming leadership election, with the result anticipated on the 4th April. Six hopefuls have put themselves forward; Sir Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips and Rebecca Long-Bailey.
Over the next three months each will attempt to interpret and reconcile the antipathies and aspirations of the electorate with an agenda that galvanises and inspires the party’s substantial membership. Whilst competing visions may differ substantially, they will be largely defined and understood through candidates’ strategic positioning across three key areas.
Despite Labour’s disastrous election defeat, it is a simple and inescapable fact that Jeremy Corbyn remains a revered figure across large sections of the Labour membership. For many, his leadership signalled a historic and decisive break from perceived triangulation and “Tory-lite” policies of curbing immigration and welfare spending. It is therefore unsurprising that every candidate, with the exception of Phillips, has refused to complete disavow “Corbynism”, with Starmer cautioning against an “oversteer”, and Nandy defending the party’s pursuit of “deep and fundamental change”.
However, contenders will also need to recognise and respond to Corbyn’s unpopularity with the electorate, significant elements of the PLP, and parts of the membership. Phillips has urged the party against “trying to please everyone” in the selection of its next leader. In this spirit, she may be tempted to double down on her longstanding criticism. Corbyn ally Long-Bailey also appears to recognise the dangers of guilt by association, criticising the handling of antisemitism cases and refuting allegations of being a “continuity candidate”.
Since the election result, debate has raged concerning the centrality of Brexit to Labour’s defeat. Some have admonished the leadership for failing to take a clear and unequivocal stance, whilst others have attributed the loss of leave voting seats to the party’s support for a second referendum.
The extent to which Britain’s relationship with the EU will continue to influence political identities and voter intentions post-Brexit is unclear. Some commentators have raised concerns about a calcified cultural divide superseding traditional voter motivations in the long term. All candidates will need to appraise the likelihood, dangers and potentialities of such a political dichotomy and position themselves accordingly. Rebecca Long-Bailey’s nod towards “progressive patriotism” is interesting in this context.
Divisions between candidates are already emerging. On Andrew Marr, Jess Phillips intimated a willingness to campaign for Labour to re-join the EU in the future. Conversely, long-time Europhile Sir Keir Starmer sought to draw a line under the debate, insisting that “the argument has to move on”.
With escalating tensions between the US and Iran, leadership hopefuls will undoubtedly come under greater scrutiny to outline their vision for Britain in the world. The 2003 invasion of Iraq continues to cast a long shadow over the party, with both Phillips and Starmer emphasising their opposition at campaign launches. Over recent days, Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry has taken aim at the bellicose rhetoric of Donald Trump, whilst former TA Officer Clive Lewis has a record of speaking out against military action.
Nevertheless, how non-interventionist instincts continue to manifest in each leadership pitch will be interesting to observe. The party has been split over Trident renewal for a number of years. Whilst Lewis has already stated he would not seek to change current policy, others are likely to disagree. Candidates may also seek to balance opposition to an increasingly erratic US administration with pointed criticism of the West’s longstanding geopolitical adversaries. Rightfully or wrongfully, Corbyn faced unrelenting criticism over terrorist sympathy and acquiesce to Putin, allegations which leadership contenders will be eager to avoid.
An Existential Crisis
If Labour are to bounce back, the party needs to learn the right lessons and learn them fast. Although conducting a thorough post-mortem of the General Election is necessary to this objective, a leadership election characterised by bitter recrimination may strengthen disenchantment amongst the public. Ultimately whilst Brexit, Corbynism and foreign policy are likely to predominate over other topics for the next three months, rebuilding Labour’s electoral fortunes will require both the strength of character to listen, and the strength of vision to inspire.
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