To work out how to win, Labour’s leadership candidates need to work out why they lost.
But there has been little reflection. A pumped-up election and subsequent defeat have morphed into a full leadership campaign with little time for careful thought about what happened on December 12th and why.
It might simply be too painful to think about. Often framed as a coalition between the ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’ left, Labour’s base is more precisely between non-university-educated lower income voters in the north and midlands and the university-educated bourgeois left living primarily in larger urban areas. There are signs that this coalition is under significant strain.
In this election the Conservatives extended their lead over Labour among lower income voters by 15 points, 48% to 33%. Among students, Labour had a 39-point lead of 56% to 17%.
It made sense then that immediately after the election defeat, the worst since 1935, some on the left were asking whether the Labour Party was slowly consigning itself to electoral history. It may be worse than that. As Cambridge Professor Chris Bickerton wrote in the Guardian in December, “as a party of working-class self-representation, Labour is already dead.”
Those contesting the leadership of the party are now in the unenviable position of having to broker agreement between these two sets of voters (with the added problem of hugely complex voting patterns within each group). Much of what appeals to the two groups appears mutually exclusive. Questions of European Union membership, immigration, and nationhood are divisive; in these, Labour’s support base is riven in exactly the areas the Conservative’s has consolidated.
So, to the leadership contest. Of the four remaining leadership contenders, Emily Thornberry seems to have the least chance to win. Praised throughout 2019, and at one point rumoured to have allied with John McDonnell, she’s now struggling to get airtime and enough CLP nominations by the 14th February deadline.
Way ahead in the polls is Keir Starmer, former Shadow Brexit Secretary. Playing it relatively safe but with big messages on devolution policy, the leadership is his to lose. Early false rumours that Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones was based on a young Starmer – human rights lawyer and eventual Director of Public Prosecutions – won’t have hurt his chances. But as the face of Labour’s second referendum policy he may struggle to win back Leave voters across England who switched, apparently for ‘one time only’ (but who knows), to the Conservatives. Whether the membership factors that in is another question.
Of the others, Lisa Nandy is overturning the most expectations. Packed with ideas and surrounded by a tight team of advisors under no illusions about the party’s predicament, she has turned heads in a race otherwise going through the motions. Rebecca Long-Bailey’s call to back nationalisations for major industries was met with forceful rejoinder on Wednesday when Nandy went for the “yes, and more” approach, suggesting that Labour “should be thinking creatively about community ownership, co-ops and municipal energy companies” rather than simply bringing industries wholesale into state ownership. It is that kind of lateral thinking which is piquing the interest of at least the media and policy wonk class.
Rebecca Long-Bailey seems to be finding the going difficult. Perhaps a less charismatic performer than Jeremy Corbyn, the ‘continuity candidate’ may play well with a hardcore minority of the Labour membership, but whether the rest back her – with many shell-shocked by the sheer scale of the defeat in December – is increasingly open to question.
Don’t be surprised if by 4 April – when the result is announced – the battle is primarily between Starmer and Nandy. That would require a huge surge on Nandy’s part, and a collapse in support for Long-Bailey, but stranger things have happened in Labour leadership elections.
The deeper question though, of whether the successful candidate can begin to bridge that gap in Labour’s coalition, will be answered over the next few months. Will voters on one side of that divide have to be disappointed, or can Labour rediscover a politics which speaks to properly national concerns?