Why The Labour Leadership Race Just Got Very Interesting

Long-Bailey gets a poll boost, as Nandy takes a risk in attacking Corbyn.

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Russian to judgement?

“Solidarity!” That’s the phrase John McDonnell has ended most of his speeches with throughout his 40-year political career. Like Jeremy Corbyn, he’s used it to sum up the socialist international spirit that has powered their worldview since the 1970s to today.

Solidarity also happened to be the name of the Polish political movement that fought Soviet communism to demand rights for independent trade unions and citizens more broadly. And that’s a bitter irony not lost on internal and external critics of the Left of the Labour party.

Today, Lisa Nandy went for the political jugular as she used her most substantive speech to date to attack Corbyn’s handling of Moscow. When the Salisbury poisonings took place, the Labour leader decided “to show solidarity with Putin, rather the Russian people”, she said. “We failed to live up to our values and I never want to see us do that again..We failed the test of solidarity.”

Nandy pointed out that Putin’s authoritarian regime discriminates against LGBT people, demonises Muslims and invades its neighbours. She swiftly faced a backlash from Corbyn’s former policy chief Andrew Fisher, who said he had only sought “categorical evidence” on Salisbury, and had repeatedly criticised Russia’s human rights. While Nandy hinted Corbyn’s instinct was to believe Moscow, Corbyn’s defenders will argue he simply refused to rush to judgement based on few facts.

Yet Nandy seemed to be making a wider point: that Corbyn’s anti-Americanism often leads him to spend more time attacking the US than standing up for those oppressed by undemocratic, gangster states. This was starkly illustrated when Corbyn demonstrated against the killing of Qasem Soleimani, but wasn’t at any demonstrations supporting Iranians furious at Tehran shooting down the Ukrainian airliner.

As Nandy was speaking, news was filtering through of Vladimir Putin’s latest authoritarian powergrab. Few know exactly what the ex-KGB agent is planning, but it looks like he wants to make himself leader for a very, very long time (as head of a beefed up ‘state council’ or even as beefed-up prime minister with no term limits).

Now, this isn’t a risk-free move from Nandy. It may backfire among Corbyn supporters who feel he has long been wrongly depicted as a Soviet agent (a charge he successfully ridiculed in 2018). But it will send a three-pronged message to many Labour members, including all those new ‘registered supporters’ signing up: that she’s prepared to make big calls, has not been part of the Corbyn shadow cabinet and can rework the party’s internationalism.

Even members of Momentum could be attracted by her main pitch of standing up for values like human rights and immigration (she bigged up EU free movement today). A new set of polling stats and analysis from academic Tim Bale tonight shows that only 52%* of Momentum members list Rebecca Long-Bailey as their first choice.

In the YouGov/Party Members Project survey, Keir Starmer polled 15% of the Momentum vote, Emily Thornberry 8%, Nandy 7%and Jess Phillips 5%. That suggests Momentum members won’t act as a monolithic bloc when they finally vote for the leadership - and that Momentum’s controversial ballot could expose the difficulties facing Long-Bailey.‌

And yet the shadow business secretary will certainly be feeling happier than any other contender tonight, after the new LabourList/Survation poll of members. It put her in the lead on first preferences, with 42% to Starmer’s 39%. Phillips was on 9% and Nandy on just 7%, Thornberry on 1%. If Nandy can’t increase that number and increase it rapidly, she’s in trouble.

Now there’s got to be a big health warning to the Survation poll. It is a poll of LabourList readers who identify as Labour party members, and those who read the website may well not be representative of the wider membership. YouGov (which gave Starmer a decent lead) has a longer record of accuracy in Labour leadership races.

But the Survation poll shows Starmer is not the dead cert many have assumed. On the deputy leadership, it also also puts Angela Rayner way ahead on 60% (41 points ahead of her nearest challenger), which will prompt many to ask again why she isn’t running for the top job herself.‌

Long-Bailey did a decent job in the Commons today setting out her green industrial agenda, and you can see Labour members liking that. By contrast, Nandy jibed today she never used the phrase ‘Green New Deal’ because it “means absolutely nothing to most of my constituents”. As on Russia, Nandy’s pitch seemed as much to the public as to her party. Whether that’s ultimately a tactical error, we will find out in coming polls.

Long-Bailey has been long ridiculed for being the ‘continuity Corbyn’ candidate, yet her own emphasis on his socialist Labour values puts her in a strong position. It’s not just the Survation poll that helps her either.

The YouGov/Members Project figures tonight found that ‘strong political convictions’ was the number one leadership quality demanded by Labour members (ahead of being able to appeal to the average voter, to unite the party and being ‘intelligent’). And Long-Bailey came top on that measure.

It’s a reminder this race may be both more complex, and more simple, than many think.

*FOOTNOTE: An earlier version of this article included different percentages on support among Momentum members, due to an error in initial figures supplied by Tim Bale.

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