Saturday 22 February 2020

Lisa Nandy for Labour Leader

In the final guest post in this mini-series on the Labour leadership contest, Andy Newman - a GMB activist and best known as chief contributor to the Socialist Unity blog - makes the case for backing Lisa Nandy.

The Labour Party last won a general election in 2005, and in December 2019 was comprehensively defeated by a Conservative Party that had proven itself unable to govern, and was lurching from crisis to crisis. The very credibility of our party to pose as a potential election winning force is now in question.

However, while there has clearly been a protracted secular decline of Labour’s vote since 1997, we must not allow a lazy narrative to ignore the anomaly of the 2017 election, where although we did not win, Labour’s vote pushed north of 40%, and where the party did electrify and enthuse a significant proportion of the voting public. I was a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017, and the second of those elections was much more positive. So what changed between 2017 and 2019?

There is of course a factor that a soufflĂ© doesn’t rise twice, and the insurgent anti-establishment nature of Corbyn’s appeal to some voters had a limited shelf life, and the longer Corbyn was leader, the more apparent became the gap of language, aspiration and experience between his supporters and traditional labour voters. This is not a phenomenon unique to the UK, and last year the Australian Labor Party suffered a debilitating loss, as it proved unable to bridge the gap between its big city supporters, often graduates with fairly liberal and green views, and its working class voters in places like Queensland.

In 2017, our party supported Brexit on the basis of respecting the referendum result, which neutralised a highly divisive issue. The subsequent drift by the party towards remain had two components. Firstly immersing the party in parliamentary games and Westminster Bubble shenanigans, which angered Labour leave voters and made Labour seem utterly part of the establishment. Keir Starmer was largely responsible for this, though he was not alone. The second aspect was a complacency that Theresa May’s struggles in parliament were damaging the Conservative Party so much, that Labour just had to wait it out. This strategy is associated with Len McCluskey and colonised the party’s leadership, including Rebecca Long-Bailey. Both of these developments demobilised the party from the type of active campaigning in towns and communities we needed.

Alone of the current leadership candidates, Lisa Nandy correctly argued that Labour should have continued to respect the referendum result, and that we should have shown leadership in promoting our own type of Brexit, consistent with our Labour values, and forcing Theresa May to back us. This was good judgement, that would have put us in a much stronger position in the general election.

Another thing that changed between 2017 and 2019 was a further retreat by the Corbyn supporting left towards into a self-referential bubble. Ever since Corbyn was elected it was clear that his support was not connected with an increase of activism in social movements or trade unionism, that would have engaged with ordinary voters. But this weakness was partly concealed by the accident of the 2016 leadership challenge, which forced Corbyn himself, and Momentum, into an outward looking campaign, albeit an electoral one.

The constitutional endowment of the Labour Party is based upon two strong institutional components, the Parliamentary Labour Party and the affiliated trade unions. The membership in the constituencies holds a weaker hand, in terms of its institutional weight, though obviously democratic participation of the membership is vital for the health of the party. As a mass electoral party, the most effective way of moving opinion within the party is to shift opinion in the outside world, among the voters. Unfortunately, a large part of the energy by Corbyn’s supporters has been squandered on internal battles within the party, where, for example, constituency delegates have stood up at Conference to attack the trade unions, and huge effort has been spent in pushing to deselect MPs. The result has been a party seemingly more at ease with infighting than in seeking to become elected as a Labour government. Long-Bailey’s commitment to “Open Selections” is a mistake. There is already a perfectly adequate mechanism for local parties and trade unions to remove a sitting MP, through the trigger process, and the fact that it is rarely used is because most Labour MPs are doing a decent job. Parties that do have “open selections”, such as the SNP and LibDems, are no more likely to replace their sitting MPs than Labour, suggesting that the issue is being raised as a signal of support for constituency parties to exercise discipline over the PLP, which would be a recipe for protracted civil war in the party, and unelectability.

The issue of “electability” is a constant theme of Keir Starmer’s supporters, and there does seem to be an implicit suggestion that because of all the candidates he most looks like Hugh Grant in Love Actually, then he would be taken more seriously. However, Keir’s pitch is very much that he would be the best performer at the dispatch box. So what? Voters don’t care about PMQs, and given the size of the Conservative majority, as soon as this leadership contest finishes there will be almost no media coverage of what Labour does in parliament. What Keir Starmer offers is a return to the safe territory where Labour’s vote has been in long term slide and from where we don’t win. Once embarked in that direction, caution and conservatism will gradually dilute policy away from the transformative agenda that we need.

Rebecca Long-Bailey offers a more radical policy proposition, but there are three weaknesses. Firstly, paradoxically her base of support seems narrower rather than broader than Corbyn’s. Secondly, her emphasis on open selections suggests that she would have an uneasy relationship with the PLP. And thirdly, although she is a northern woman, her policy pitch seems divorced from the concerns of those traditional Labour voters that we lost to the Conservatives in 2019.

A strategic weakness of Corbynism was to overestimate the social and electoral weight of left liberal voters in big cities, and of younger voters who for conjunctural reasons feel insecure due to precarious jobs and accommodation. These factors are certainly relevant, but inequality of wealth and power in Britain is not just generational, but also predicated upon class and geography. Small towns, especially that have been deindustrialised or in coastal communities, feel forgotten and ignored, and many voters there feel that Labour no longer speaks for them or understands them.

Focus groups and voter feedback show that Lisa Nandy is liked by those voters we lost, she is promising a turn towards campaigning rather than focusing everything on Westminster, and she will deliver stability to the party. Furthermore, if you agree that the worst outcome would be a Keir Starmer victory, then it is more likely that Lisa could beat him on second preferences than Becky could.