Many people choose to approach leadership elections by setting down their own preferences and prejudices. I’m as vulnerable to that as anybody else, but I’m lucky to be in a contest where everyone remaining in the race now has some level of overlap with my politics.
I am probably voting for Lisa Nandy but I certainly haven’t made my mind up yet. Whoever I back personally, I’m trying to look at the contest dispassionately, give people a chance, and see objectively what campaigns are doing right or wrong.
Most interesting of all of them is the RLB campaign. It has of course been a very tough few weeks for the Corbynite left, which seems split on how to react to the election defeat (take some of the blame, or try to hand it all over to pro-Europeans who make up most of Labour and Corbyn’s membership base).
This splitting, and the non-viability of the latter position, have not helped Long-Bailey, who wants to make a far more positive proposition for herself than blaming a load of other people for Labour losing. A wise stance.
However, the RLB campaign is weird and seems to not know what has shifted opinion wise, or what it needs to offer members.
People are tired of the aggression in factionalism pretty much foremost, and feel this has contributed heavily towards us losing. This key change in mood seems to be getting completely missed, and there are a few examples.
Firstly online supporters seem to have reflexively gone straight into attack mode against everyone else. This worked in 2016 because there were two candidates and because people hadn’t seen what it would lead to if it became standard. But it’s not working now – RLB needs to win transfers, but some of her supporters are campaigning as if the priority is to push people away. Nobody from top to bottom seems to clock this as a problem, but people are now in much more of a mood to explore where we overlap and what we have in common.
Secondly, the open selections bit seems to be another manifestation of putting factional stuff before how we appear to the country – and I say that as someone who believes it is both good and necessary. It also seems like more of a debate for members than leaders and potentially drags down the candidate again.
It definitely doesn’t look good when tonnes of our seats at the last election were effectively stitched up by Momentum backed parts of the party bureaucracy and many CLPs were deliberately denied a vote.
To many, it doesn’t look like this part of the party is consistently democratic at all. This is the opposite of how people felt in 2015.
It certainly does not look like the traditional left is concerned any longer wish offering a level playing field to all. Even to many Momentum members, it looks like the trad left is only interested in democracy as its own instrument.
Thirdly, the concentration on democratic reform of the Lords is good, but it’s a bit partial and again it’s hard to see how this addresses the question of how we win (though all campaigns are a bit guilty of this).
Last and perhaps more importantly, many members have continued to have a traumatic and torrid experience in the party over recent years, as was also true under the right. Large amounts of this have been due to a highly factionalised admin arrangement which has also been perceived to lack perspective and professionalism, and not just by those outside it, as John McDonnell and Andrew Fisher may agree.
People are very keen to see a break with this. It is assumed that any sensible candidate would do, but as the candidate backed by the establishment faction, Long-Bailey is the only person who can gain voters by agreeing with the need for this and showing how it will work. It hasn’t been addressed at all.
All of the issues I’ve mentioned above have been key points that my part of the party, Open Labour and the broader ‘soft left’, have been diagnosing for some years, usually with a completely ‘deaf ears’ reaction from the traditional left. We have built a small but punchy movement around these ideas, which remains far far smaller than Momentum, which came from Corbyn’s 2015 supporter list and rests on a massive logistical advantage from that time.
The analyses offered by the party right have not really gripped members imagination, by the problem faced but the RLB campaign is that the soft left critique is widely seen by members to be thoroughly evidenced, and to identify the key issues which need to change – even though our actual formation is fairly small.
Starmer, Nandy and Thornberry are all speaking to these concerns and getting heavy feedback from members about them.
On the face of it, given who joined Labour in 2015 and 2016, and the respective levels of organisation, it is puzzling that the RLB campaign is not smashing this election.
It has huge logistical and financial advantages because of the mountain of contact details and general election fundraising cash which Momentum is sitting on. The rules have also been designed around Momentum slate members on the NEC, who managed to out-maneuvre some trade union and elected rep delegates on issues such as timetabling and rules.
But so far the campaign has used these advantages as inefficiently as possible by failing to understand how to get the politics right, and what conclusions our members have drawn about he last few years.
As the general election has shown, sending out armies of thousands of activists and spending loads on adverts does not particularly help if they are all armed with blanks, duds and bad detonators. You just deliver more of the wrong arguments.
The political content of elections matters vastly, and the arrogance of thinking you can simply mobilise your way out of political dead ends (especially without political flexibility or segmentation) is a big part of what got us in a leadership contest in the first place.
This leaves the questions very clear for the RLB campaign, which needs more votes and in particular a greater rate of transfers from other candidates. if they are asked, Becky can still win.
Is the campaign addressing why Labour lost, and is it really credible or popular to try to pin it all on Europe?
What can we do to win, and who has a place in making that happen? What is our potential majority coalition?
What is it that Labour members see as needing to change?
Does this differ between current RLB supporters and those she wants to bring on board, or to transfer to her?
What has been bad for the experience of being a member, or bad for public perception in the last few years?
What do people currently see as the downsides of her candidacy and can she show leadership in neutralising these, as for example Lisa Nandy has over free movement?
RLBs big challenge should be how to make socialism a majority project – answering the tough question that Corbynism lacked the self confidence to take on.
But it could only win an argument for this with considerably more of Labour’s own membership comfortably on board. So far the camapaign is behind on this, with neither grassroots or coordinating supporters showing that they ‘get it’.
A good campaign should always employ the advice of a few critics. from the outside, it seems to me that all of the contenders have been serious about doing this so far, apart from the one with the greatest starting advantage. The campaign seems tone deaf and unwilling to make offers outside of its core. Plus ca change! We will see if that turns around.
I bear no ill will and I’m not really writing this to slate anyone. I may be left eating my own words. Christ, I’m used to them being discarded over the last few years anyway.
I hope that some of the above is useful for those supporting Becky in thinking about what they need to do to win trust or admiration from sceptical members, the vast bulk of whom remain some way left of New Labour. You should be looking for support from people like me.
A win for RLB is still very much possible, but it means thinking a lot more deeply and honestly than has been done so far.