Labour leadership frontrunner Rebecca Long Bailey has struggled to convince fellow MPs as her rivals painted her as the ‘no change’ candidate and questioned her role in the party’s anti-Semitism crisis.
At the first hustings in the race to succeed Jeremy Corbyn, the shadow business secretary declared that Labour’s “number one duty” was to learn the lessons of its shattering defeat to Boris Johnson in the 2019 election.
But her record came under fire as Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips, Clive Lewis and Emily Thornberry all pitched themselves as the future of the party and called for a clear break with the past.
During the near-two hour session in the Commons on Tuesday night, she faced claims that she failed to speak up enough to tackle anti-Jew hatred during the past three years and had argued against adopting an international definition of anti-Semitism.
Long Bailey has a potentially formidable power base within the party’s membership grassroots and union movement and is expected to win the endorsement of Unite and Momentum’s founder Jon Lansman.
She is also likely to win the bulk of leftwing MPs to reach the required threshold of 22 colleagues needed to formally get on the ballot in the three-month contest that lasts until April 2.
Yet her five rivals each underlined that they would not be the “continuity candidate”, with Phillips declaring “I am sick of just shifting the dial, I want to smash it!” and Starmer warning that Labour can win again “only if we focus relentlessly on the future and not on the past”.
Nandy was withering about suggestions that the party only needed to change its leader and not its policies, strategy or messaging to the public who voted in millions for the Tories for the first time.
“Now is not the time to steady the ship. If we do not change course we will die and we will deserve to,” she said.
She also savaged the general election strategy for failing to protect Labour seats in the north and midlands, saying: “Never again can we get factions and friends of the leader determine where resources go.”
Earlier, Long Bailey insisted “I’m not anybody’s ‘continuity candidate’”, yet leapt to defend Corbyn. Asked to rate his performance as leader, she told ITV News “I’d give him 10 out of 10, because I respect him and I supported him all the way through”.
During the hustings, Long Bailey said the party lost because of its Brexit compromise failed to satisfy either side, because “too few voters thought Labour spoke for them”, and because it failed to convince people that “our popular policies were credible and deliverable”.
She also said that the voters “didn’t trust us to deal with anti-Semitism” but faced criticism when all the candidates were asked by backbencher Holly Lynch what they had personally done to tackle anti-Jewish hatred in the party.
Long Bailey said that “we owe Jewish people an apology” but that prompted Thornberry to say she and Starmer repeatedly raised the issue in shadow cabinet meetings, implying the shadow business secretary had failed to do so as vigorously.
Nandy, who also raised the issue directly with Corbyn when she was in the shadow cabinet in 2016, said that some “people on this stage” had failed to agree the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of anti-Semitism - a line seen as a dig at Long Bailey.
Nandy said there had been a “collective leadership failure” to acknowledge the crisis, while Phillips said “Jewish people were afraid of us governing” while she and other backbenchers demanded action “again and again”.
Starmer said the Labour leader should take “personal responsibility” and “kick people out”, while Thornberry said “no more second chances - kick people out”.
One MP said that the hustings were conducted in a “comradely manner” but the anti-Semitism issue was when the questions sparked into life. “It was more obvious than ever that Becky is the ‘no-change’ candidate,” they said.
Others said that while Starmer was solid, Nandy was the one who made the biggest impression, partly because she is less well known than the others. Several MPs who had not aligned themselves to Nandy said she performed best on the night.
Starmer, who has topped one poll among a YouGov survey of members, used his speech to tell MPs that Labour has to “be thinking about the end of the 2020s and 2030”.
“Our party wins when we glimpse the future and we are seen as a force for good and a force for change,” he said.
Phillips said: “We run the risk of being completely irrelevant for the next four years. All over the country people have busy lives, with lots of noise from one way or another. We have got to get them to hear us in the little time they give us.
“We cannot do the same thing again and again and expect a different result. We have got to be brave! I would be a different kind of leader, no doubt about it. Some times you have to close your eyes and be bold. I am the bold choice, it’s going to take bold to beat Boris Johnson.”
Lewis left the meeting, saying “tough audience, tough gig”.
One former shadow minister told HuffPost UK that they felt Starmer had a “solid 30% of the membership” because of his combination of loyalty, break with the past and pro-Remain record. But they added that Long Bailey had a strong machine behind her too.
With MP nominations due in next Monday, Starmer and Phillips currently lead in support from colleagues in parliament, followed by Long Bailey, Nandy, Lewis and Thornberry.
“Emily is really finding it hard to get the names, and already people are talking about lending her their vote,” one MP said.