Where Rebecca Long-Bailey went wrong
Jeremy Corbyn famously said during the 2019 General Election that: “There is no such thing as Corbynism. There is socialism, there is social justice.” If Corbynism did ever exist as distinct from socialism and social justice, it is certainly over now. Labour’s defeat in December was immediately followed by Corbyn’s resignation and a leadership election where Keir Starmer decisively won out against the Left’s candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey. She had been Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy under Corbyn’s leadership where she most famously led on developing Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution (sometimes called Green New Deal) policies.
Long-Bailey’s leadership campaign never really got started and couldn’t have felt more different to Corbyn’s insurgent 2015 campaign – or even his re-election victory in 2016. Too often it felt like Long-Bailey never really wanted to be Leader of the Labour Party. She was just the only viable candidate the Left could offer, especially with Laura Pidcock losing her Parliamentary seat in the General Election. Some have said the Left entered the leadership election in an insurmountably weak position after Labour’s election defeat and we could never have hoped to beat Starmer. But Long-Bailey collected just 27.6% of the vote. The campaign should be disappointed with an embarrassing return, four years after Corbyn’s second leadership election where he beat Owen Smith in the first round of voting with 61.8%.
At times, Long-Bailey’s campaign alienated her natural base of supporters including by declaring herself a “Zionist” and uncritically signing up to the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ ten pledges, some of which were functionally unworkable as pointed out by Richard Burgon, the Left’s candidate for Deputy Leader. These capitulations are likely to have discouraged some left-wing members from voting or campaigning for her and evidently did little to attract the “soft-left” support they may have been designed to court. She also failed to lean in fully to the popularity of the Green New Deal, which she could credibly claim ownership of within the Party, instead continuing to mix messages between it and the ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ while rarely offering new and exciting policy areas to bolster the Green New Deal.
Other lessons for the Left from the Long-Bailey campaign include the need to prepare for every scenario. Long-Bailey’s excuse for the chaotic start to the campaign (compared to Starmer’s quick and professional start) was that she was campaigning in the General Election not preparing a leadership bid. But Labour’s defeat was always a possibility and the Left needs to be ready to move decisively and strategically whatever the outcome of these key junctures. Instead we wasted weeks after the General Election with widely reported factional maneuvering over who would run and staff the campaign. Those issues should be resolved behind closed doors before the contest starts. Although I have been critical of the management of Long-Bailey’s campaign – and those in charge should certainly take responsibility for its ineptitude – the Labour Left as a whole should take responsibility too. As a movement, we weren’t ready to spring in to action as we did for General Election campaigns. We were tired and devastated, but we will now live with the consequences of our collective lack of preparedness.
The final lesson to draw from this leadership election is that the base of “Corbynism” is less solid than we might have assumed. We can infer that roughly a quarter of Labour members and affiliates are committed to the socialist project within Labour based on Long-Bailey’s share of the vote. This is a solid base to work from, capable of achieving significant gains within the party if organised, but not a decisive majority. This shows that the Left needs to work to further, while continuing to build, its base of support and effectively activate those members so they productively contribute to the project of re-building our dominance in the Party.
This article is the first in a series from Chris Saltmarsh on the state of the Labour Left after Jeremy Corbyn. The series can be found here.
Image credit: YouTube Screengrab