Britain’s Labour Party Starts Deciding Its Post-Corbyn Future
Front-runner Keir Starmer is seeking to get past Jeremy Corbyn and return the party to the early glory days of Tony Blair, but whoever the winner is will have to reckon with the party’s hard turn leftward.
On Feb. 21, Labour’s 580,000 party members will finally get their chance to move past the disaster of last December’s British parliamentary election and find a way forward after nearly five years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. But if front-runner Keir Starmer manages to best his two chief rivals, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy, and return the party to the early glory days of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s majority, he will still have to reckon with the lingering legacy of Corbyn and the hard leftward turn embraced by the Labour faithful.
Indeed Corbyn’s legacy—and how best to describe it—will be a deciding factor in the vote, which takes place between now and early April. Within the party’s more centrist circles, Corbyn was simply too far to the left for the British public to stomach; for others—especially the party’s youth wing—he was a transformational figure who reinvigorated the party with new blood following the stagnant post-Blair years.
The clear leader in the race to replace Corbyn is Starmer, the U.K.’s former director of public prosecutions who was first elected to Parliament in 2015. Ladbrokes, the U.K.’s largest betting company, is giving odds of a Starmer victory at 1-8, or an implied probability of 88.9 percent. Long-Bailey, his closest rival, is only given a 12.5 percent chance by the bookmaker. (Betting markets can be deceiving, however—in 2015 Ladbrokes gave Jeremy Corbyn a 0.5 percent chance just two months before the election.)
Starmer is pitching himself as the unity candidate, and his campaign for leadership has hinged on the promise to end the infighting that has engulfed the Labour Party over the last decade. “We cannot fight the Tories if we are fighting each other. Factionalism has to go,” he said at his campaign launch. The Labour Party’s desperation for a candidate who can unite various factions into a winning coalition broadly parallels the debate across the Atlantic, where the fractious Democrats are trying to find common ground between progressives and moderates before taking on U.S. President Donald Trump in November.
Starmer’s rise is mainly reflective of the Labour Party’s desire to win after a decade of losing national elections. A poll of Labour members showed 43 percent said Starmer was someone likely to win back the prime ministership, and 83 percent said they were willing to make compromises to Labour values if it would make the party more electable. Even so, many on the left are wary of Starmer’s political leanings, something he has tried to preempt by releasing 10 pledges that align broadly with Labour’s 2017 manifesto. As shadow Brexit secretary, he was also considered one of the architects of Labour’s electorally disastrous second referendum policy, though that hasn’t stopped him being backed by the trade union Unison, the UK’s largest trade union.
As the front-runner, Starmer seems to be playing it as safe as possible. In a BBC interview, he refused to be drawn into commenting on what went wrong in the last election, pointing out that the rot goes deeper and that this defeat was the fourth in a row in a streak that predates Corbyn. When asked where on the spectrum he sits between Blair and Corbyn, he again demurred. “I want to lead a Labour Party that is trusted enough to bring about fundamental change,” he said. “I don’t need somebody else’s name or badge in order to do that.”
How did we get here?
Labour’s crushing defeat at the polls in the December 2019 general election, with the party losing 54 seats and handing Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party an 80-seat majority, spelled the end for Jeremy Corbyn. He announced his resignation immediately following the election result.
One factor complicating the current race is that Labour began using a new voting system with the election of Corbyn in 2015 and in his subsequent leadership challenge in 2016. Previously, the choice was heavily weighted toward Labour members of the U.K. and European parliaments whose decision carried a third of the vote in an electoral college-style system, where the Labour membership’s vote represented a third and the vote Labour-affiliated unions and organizations making up the remaining third. The new system (called “one member, one vote”) removes any electoral college and is conducted as a straight ranked-choice vote by the party membership. As a result, it tends to favor the typically more left-wing grassroots of the party.
The new voting system also helps explain why the contest has been so tame, and the candidates have been wary of attacking one another in televised debates. Every voter gets to rank their top three choices, and if none of the three candidates gets a majority of first preferences in the first round of voting, then the top two gain the No. 2 votes of the third-ranking candidate, who drops out.
In a competition that is about replacing Corbyn, the candidates have had to walk a tightrope on how they characterize their soon-to-be former leader. In a recent Lord Ashcroft poll asking Britons to name the best Labour leader of the past 50 years, the highest portion chose Tony Blair. When the same question was asked of Labour supporters, the most common answer was Jeremy Corbyn. (When the current candidates were asked the same question in a TV debate, none said Blair or Corbyn.) It is with this tension in mind that the candidates are making their case—they must acknowledge that the previous leadership was a failure while being careful not to blame Corbyn himself, or his policies, outright.
An internal Labour Party review conducted after the December 2019 election and leaked to the Financial Times underscores the party’s position. The review blames their defeat on the party’s inconsistent Brexit strategy, which they say unfairly labeled them a party of Remain. But it stops short of blaming the 2019 party manifesto or Labour leadership, pointing to the relatively positive results in the 2017 election, where the leadership and manifesto were similar. Instead the review lays much of the blame on the country’s press, which is accused of launching a four-year campaign of attacks on Corbyn “without precedent in modern politics.”
Recent polling also leads to confusion on where Labour should be headed. Polls by BMG showed widespread support for Labour’s 2019 manifesto policies as they relate to climate change, nationalization, and taxation. However, in the same poll, when voters were asked whether the next Labour leader should stick to Corbyn’s policies—which were reflected in the 2019 manifesto—it seems as if his very name caused support to drop dramatically and the trend reversed.
YouGov polls taken directly after the election tell a similar story, with Corbyn listed as the top reason (35 percent) why Labour voters switched parties, with Brexit in second with 19 percent—52 out of the 54 seats Labour lost to the Conservatives in 2019 were in constituencies that voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. Labour’s other policies only accounted for 16 percent of switching, according to the poll. The challenge for all three candidates for leader will be to present a vision that proves to disaffected supporters that they recognize the mistakes of the party’s recent past without alienating those in the party who think Corbyn was a step in the right direction.
The remaining candidates in the race, Starmer, Long-Bailey, and Nandy, have begun their campaigns to varying degrees in reaction to Corbyn. Long-Bailey’s campaign staff include two founding members of Momentum, the Labour-aligned political organization aligned with Corbyn. Starmer has hired an ex-Corbyn advisor as well as the founder of Labour First, a group considered on the party’s right. Many of Nandy’s team hail from the party’s Ed Miliband era.
What are the candidates saying?
All three candidates share one thing in common: their relative political inexperience. Nandy has double the parliamentary experience of her rivals, having been elected in 2010 and touted as a possible leader in 2015. Long-Bailey and Starmer both won their first seats in the 2015 general election.
Of the three, Long-Bailey seems the most clearly aligned with Corbyn and the forces that led him to power. As well as employing Momentum’s founders, she has received the endorsement of the group, whose estimated 40,000 members will be encouraged to vote and campaign for her. She has also received the backing of the union Unite, the country’s second-largest trade union and a previous backer of Corbyn.
Although a member of Corbyn’s front bench and a key author of the party’s 2019 manifesto, Long-Bailey has been at pains to distance herself from the claim that she is merely “continuity Corbyn,” dismissing the charge as sexist. Speaking at a Channel 4 News debate on Feb. 17, her statement that began “there is no such thing as Corbynism, there’s our Labour values” was met with loud audience applause. It is not clear whether Long-Bailey’s attempts to distance herself from Corbyn will be enough to deter Britain’s highly influential right-wing press from launching the same attacks that made Corbyn toxic to a large swath of the British electorate—although her supporters would say that any future Labour leader, regardless of previous ties, should expect to bear the brunt of such attacks.
In interviews and promotional videos, she has talked up her plans for “aspirational socialism” and has underlined the need for Labour to speak to areas like her home constituency of Salford and Eccles in Greater Manchester, who voted leave in Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership. She has also backed open selection for Labour candidates in elections, a practice similar to the open primary system within U.S. political parties and a long-held goal of the party’s left.
A YouGov poll of Labour members conducted in January while there were still 5 candidates in the race showed Long-Bailey losing out to Starmer in the final round, receiving only 37 percent to Starmer’s 63 percent.
Nandy, meanwhile, is considered the candidate most aligned with the party’s soft left. She was part of the shadow cabinet that resigned in protest of Corbyn’s leadership in 2016 and co-chaired Owen Smith’s campaign team in the ensuing leadership challenge. She set out her case in a Guardian op-ed by signaling she would be a break from the recent past. “Now is not the time to steady the ship or try not to oversteer. Unless we change course, we will become irrelevant,” she wrote. Hardly a Blairite, she was the only one of the three candidates at the Feb. 17 debate to say she would vote to abolish the monarchy.
She has been recognized for her strong voice against anti-Semitism—an accusation that has dogged the party—and has won the endorsement of the Jewish Labour Movement, the Labour Party’s officially affiliated Jewish society.
Nandy’s focus is on reclaiming Labour’s traditional electoral map, especially in Britain’s towns, many of which have suffered the effects of deindustrialization and have drifted toward the Conservative Party as major cities have moved more toward Labour. Nandy founded the Centre for Towns, a nonpartisan think tank seeking to draw attention to the issues facing small towns. Such has been her full-throated advocacy for Britain’s towns, meme accounts celebrating her almost have as many online followers as the organization she founded.
Considered an outsider in the leadership battle, she nonetheless has won the backing of one of the U.K.’s most powerful unions, GMB.
When will we know the official winner?
Voting begins on Friday, Feb. 21, and does not close until April 4 when the winner will be announced in a special party conference.
Who wins will depend on the makeup of the selectorate, which could end up lower than previous years if Labour’s crushing December defeat depresses turnout. Chances of a Long-Bailey comeback will depend strongly on the strength of Momentum and its ability to turn out its younger and more left-leaning members in the coming weeks.
For the political columnist Polly Toynbee, who has written in support of Starmer, his serious disposition would draw a stark contrast to Boris Johnson. “The fact that he is the opposite to Boris will turn out to be an advantage,” she told Foreign Policy.
On the party’s left, the worry is that Starmer could end up something of a Joe Biden-type figure, who some U.S. Democrats see as good on paper but unable to excite the party base. “Starmer is leading because the thinking is that he would be the most prime-ministerial candidate,” Ronan Burtenshaw, the editor of the left-wing Tribune magazine, told Foreign Policy, “I don’t think he is the performer a lot of the public thinks he is. He’s not someone who’s going to excite crowds and isn’t someone who is going to come off as compelling and clear as an alternative to Boris Johnson.” Burtenshaw said the relatively easy ride Starmer has received thus far from the U.K.’s right-wing press would evaporate were he to be selected as leader, following a trend experienced by his predecessors in the post-Blair Labour Party.
Toynbee is not too worried that Starmer won’t win any charisma contests, referring to the Conservative Party’s latest upheavals. “We’ve got a lot of charisma in the Tory party right now,” she said, “and that isn’t going too well.”