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The big squeeze
The Labour leadership contest is now into its fifth week and, brace yourself for the excitement, there are still another nine weeks to go before we will hear who has won. That’s still enough time for some upset to happen, or some new piece of information or gaffe to emerge that could change the whole direction of the contest.
But as it stands, judging by the (admittedly thin) polling and by local constituency party nominations so far (a much better guide thanks to all-member meetings and transferable votes), it’s looking like a two-horse race between Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey.
And tonight, in an interview with the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, Emily Thornberry put her finger on why she was getting squeezed out of the picture. She’s up against two monolithic campaigns, one “seen as” (key caveat that) on the Left, and one seen as being on the right or centre ground.
Her most telling quote was this: “I’ve had people saying to me they’ve gone to a nominating meeting and they’ve said, well,’ Emily I was going to support you, but we’ve got to stop Keir Starmer, so I’m voting for Rebecca Long-Bailey’. And I’ve had other people coming to me and saying ‘I was going to support you, but I can’t because we’ve got to stop Rebecca Long-Bailey so I had to vote for Keir’.”
Now, of course that oversimplifies why Labour members are voting for her rivals. The real power of the Starmer campaign is that it has actually attracted a lot of soft left and left support, people who are avid fans of Jeremy Corbyn’s politics. It would also be wrong to caricature Long-Bailey’s supporters as simply ‘stop-the-centrists’. There are positive reasons to back each of them, rather than negative factional ones to block their opponent.
But Thornberry did hit upon something important: Starmer and Long-Bailey have won the battle of profile, getting your name out early with clear definition. Long-Bailey is the candidate members can think of as the most Left, not least given the backing of John McDonnell, Momentum and unions like Unite and CWU. Starmer is the candidate whose supporters think is the most ‘prime ministerial’ (oven-ready, as Boris Johnson might put it).
For all her media savvy, Lisa Nandy has also so far been squeezed as she too lagged behind in the battle for profile and easy definition. And there are two other key factors that works against her and Thornberry, but in favour of Starmer and Long-Bailey: impatience and risk-aversion. Together, they are a lethal cocktail for outsiders in the race.
Many party members who are sick of getting thrashed in general elections now just want an instant, safe pair of hands. Starmer and Long-Bailey both send out the message to their supporters that the party (and Corbynism itself) will be safe with them, and it’s time to get on with it.
Still, Nandy has deliberately made herself the risky candidate, the one who will build a profile with the voters over the next four years. “Now is not the time to steady the ship or play it safe,” as she told the PLP right at the start of this contest.
But that appetite to take a risk may have hugely diminished after members previously rolled the dice on Ed Miliband then Corbyn, and ended up losing their gamble. Add in the fact that Nandy has been missing in action (not in the shadow cabinet, not on a select committee, not making waves as a backbencher), and her lack of profile means many members just don’t know who she is.
Thornberry and Nandy’s other problem is a perception of inconsistency. Thornberry’s critics think she’s flip-flopped over the past couple of years (anti-referendum, then pro-referendum, Corbyn’s best neighbour, then Corbyn’s arch critic on a lack of credibility with voters). Nandy too is seen as having changed her stance on things like Universal Credit and freedom of movement. One senior party figure told me simply: “She’s just a contrarian.”
Still, the party hustings in recent weeks have shown just how fluent and passionate Thornberry and Nandy can be. Yet a tiny number of Labour members (let alone the public) are even watching the party’s YouTube livestreams. And days after the hustings applause dies down, yet another CLP seems to vote inexorably for Starmer or Long-Bailey. Country-wide organisation and local fixers ram home their advantage too.
Nandy and Thornberry still think that the longer the race goes on, the more they have a chance to get in front of more members, particularly in TV debates like the one due on Channel 4. Yet there is also a danger that the longer it goes on without them making any breakthrough (the next poll may test that), the more they cement their roles as also-rans.
The new worry for Nandy and Thornberry now must be that the two front-runners have banked their capital as the ‘reassuring’ candidates and are now coming up with policies that make them look simultaneously ‘new’. Starmer’s plan to reform the party’s internal structures (including independent complaints and no more NEC power over candidates) and Long-Bailey’s promised shake-up of the ‘not what you know, but who you know’ culture that has dominated Team Corbyn could further squeeze the third and fourth placed contenders.
There could still be some surprises, of course (hey, this is 2020, after all). And a last-lap ‘kick’ for the finishing line is the hope that keeps middle-distance runners going. But this Labour leadership race is a marathon, not a sprint or a four-minute mile. And as with most marathons, the longer it goes on, the likelihood is that the front runners will stretch their lead rather than lose it.
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