Rebecca Long-Bailey has moved to outflank Keir Starmer in the Labour leadership race by committing to keep Jeremy Corbyn’s pledges on taxing the rich, banning arms sales, tackling climate change and ending the gender pay gap.
The shadow business secretary told HuffPost UK that she would stick firmly to a range of specific targets set out in the 2019 manifesto because it was important to “never give up” on Corbyn’s roadmap for reform.
And she insisted she was on course to beat Starmer by tapping into the mass membership who are “political”, but who do not turn up to the local party meetings that have so far given Starmer a big lead in nominations.
In a wide-ranging interview, she also:
- Vowed not to appoint any new peers because it’s “not right” for party leaders to give places in the House of Lords to people they know or their staff
- Revealed she was spurred to become active in the Labour party after hearing centrist members talk about means testing NHS hospital meals
- Offered to consult party members on whether proportional representation should be used for local and general elections
- Said Labour suffered in the last election because its own MPs had criticised Corbyn for the past four years
- Joked about her and flatmate Angela Rayner sharing their late-night Pot Noodle supplies
Starmer, Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry are still in the race to succeed Corbyn, with the winner due to be announced on April 4.
Speaking ahead of the first televised hustings in the leadership race on Wednesday night, Long-Bailey moved to create “clear red water” between herself and frontrunner Starmer by binding herself more closely to the 2019 manifesto.
Starmer has set out his own 10 Pledges to unite Labour, but Long-Bailey allies swiftly pounced on some notable omissions or alternative approaches in the list.
On tax, the shadow Brexit secretary says he would “increase income tax on the top 5% of earners” on salaries of more than £80,000 a year, but is understood to want to determine the specific tax bands nearer the next election.
He backs the “Green New Deal” plan to decarbonise the economy, but has decided not to commit to the party’s pledge to set a path to net zero emissions by 2030.
On equalities, Starmer wants to end the gender pay gap as soon as possible but is not explicitly any longer signed up to ending it within a decade as the manifesto promised.
Similarly, he has pledged to “review” all arms sales, rather than repeat the pledge to “immediately suspend” sales of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen or arms to Israel used in human rights abuses of Palestinians.
Allies of Starmer insist that while his pledges show he won’t backtrack on Labour’s “radical values”, losing the election means that some specific pledges will have to be reexamined.
But Long-Bailey told HuffPost UK she was committed to the party’s plan to put a 45% tax on people earning more than £80,000 and a 50% tax on people earning more than £125,000 a year.
“It’s important to make sure that you’ve got a tax base that’s capable of being able to deliver the investment that [public] services need, and it’s not unfair to expect that those with the broad shoulders should pay more.
“By using that tax and taxing fairly that’s reinvested, but it also ensures that those people who are on a 45p or 50p tax rate, they’ll do better in the future, because we’ll have a better functioning economy… There’s no plan to deviate from those tax rates at the moment.”
On arms sales, she said she would stick to the current manifesto pledge “because we need to have a moral defence strategy and arms sales strategy.”
“Arm sales end in people being injured or killed. And I think we need to take a moral responsibility in that - ethical business,” she said.
Long-Bailey said that a firm pledge to end the gender pay gap and to get to net zero emissions by 2030 were key to showing Labour had not given up its core beliefs.
“[The gender pay pledge] is so important and it’s not unlike tackling the climate crisis. We can’t just sit on our hands for the next few years waiting for the next general election, because life for our communities could potentially get very bad.
“So we’ve got to use our influence within parliament but also outside of parliament by building campaigns and a movement around these two issues to push as much action from the government as we can possibly see before 2024.
“Because I suspect if they don’t do anything at all, by the time it gets to 2024 the gender pay gap will be even bigger than it is now.”
Writing for HuffPost UK today on why “after 120 years it is time that Labour finally elects a woman as leader”, Long-Bailey added: “We cannot retreat from this ambitious agenda – that would be to let women down.”
As of Wednesday morning, Starmer had a healthy lead in nominations by local constituency Labour parties, with 312 to Long-Bailey’s 138. Nandy had 59 and Thornberry 23.
But in the interview, Long-Bailey said she was “not concerned” by the figures because in many cases - as in Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North constituency - she had come second by just a few votes, but also because lots of members hadn’t voted at all.
“What I would say about my campaign is that I wasn’t ready and out of the blocks as soon as the general election was called.
“I spent quite a long time over Christmas deciding whether this was the right thing to do for me and my family, whether it was right for the party so I think we’ve always been a little bit behind the other campaigns in that regard, but we’re making ground now.”
The Salford MP said that the numbers at attending nomination meetings “represents a tiny proportion of our membership because a lot of people don’t go to their meetings”.
“You might get 50 to 100 people at a meeting if you’re lucky, some constituencies more. But, to give Salford as an example, we had about 100 people come to our nomination meeting. We’ve got nearly 2000 members, who potentially are all going to vote.
“So a lot of people that you’re trying to reach won’t be active party members. They’ll be political, but they won’t be directly involved in your party locally. I think I’m going to win. Obviously.”
She stressed that she was the candidate for those members who flocked to Corbyn, but who since the election had doubted themselves.
“Many of our members have been going through what I can only describe as a grieving process,” she said.
“And they felt that what we’ve believed in for the last five years, maybe wasn’t possible anymore. And what I’m saying, and one of the reasons why I’m standing, is that it is possible. We should never give up on wanting aspiration for our communities and wanting that better quality of life, because we had a roadmap to get there.
“We didn’t explain it very well. And we’ve packaged it in in a kind of incoherent way sometimes, but we can still have that if we’ve got the right leader with the right messaging. So that’s what I’m trying to say to our members. But It’s understandable that they’re questioning what the right thing to do would be.
In what appeared to be a dig at Starmer supporters who say he looks the most prime ministerial of the candidates, she added: “It’s not enough to just put a suit on and think that you can look prime ministerial and wander into Downing Street.
“That’s never happened how Labour wins elections, it’s about telling people what their children’s lives and their grandchildren’s lives again to be like and that they’re always going to be better than their own.”
The daughter of working class parents, who went on to university, a career in law and a house in Cheshire (though she now lives back in her Salford constituency), Long-Bailey is herself in many ways the embodiment of the social mobility that Labour has pursued.
“I don’t like talking in terms of class. To be honest, I am working class and I’ll always feel working class but people will try and pigeonhole me to either be working class or, you know, middle class whatever you want to call it,” she says.
Although she was political in her youth, Long-Bailey didn’t join Labour until 2010 when she was in her thirties. Labour’s defeat prompted her to join, as it is prompting many following the 2019 defeat.
But she reveals that the real spur was more close to home. “My mum had retired, and she was driving my dad around the bend at home because she didn’t have any hobbies and because she’s only ever been into politics and watching the news, she didn’t do like knitting or like crafts and things like that.
“So I said to her, ’We’ve got to get you a hobby. Why don’t we both join the Labour Party and I’ll come to some meetings with you? I was living near my mum and dad at the time. And I said I’ll go and then when you’ve made friends I’ll leave you to it.
“And we went to that first meeting, and I remember there was one member there, who said how he thought it was a really good idea to means test hospital meals. And a few other people in the meeting went ‘yeah that’s really good, if you can afford to pay you should afford to pay’. And I could feel the anger building up inside [me].
“This is how far we’ve come in five years you see. I remember driving back from the meeting and they’re saying to my mum ’I know I said I was gonna leave you to it, but unless I get involved and sort this out then we’re all doomed.
“And that’s when I started trying to influence within my local party, to get involved in campaigns and things like that and still even then, I never expected to become an MP I was quite happy to to just do what I could in my local area.”
Amid reports that Corbyn has nominated former Speaker John Bercow, ex deputy leader Tom Watson and chief of staff Karie Murphy for peerages, Long-Bailey was adamant that if she became leader the practice would end.
“I’d abolish the House of Lords, so I don’t really think we should be appointing anybody to be honest. I want them all to be democratically elected.
“Some of them [current peers] are brilliant by the way and they do a great job so I’m not undermining the work they do. But they’ve been appointed either for doing great things in their community, being experts in a particular area or because the opposition or the government have decided to appoint them because they know them or they’ve worked for them.
“And that’s not right. And that’s why we’ve got to have an elected senate outside of London.”
HuffPost UK reported this weekend that up to 40 MPs were threatening to quit the party if Long-Bailey became leader this spring. How did she react to that?
“I hope it’s not true. And I hope that when I win the leadership, if I’m lucky enough to, that they realise what it is I stand for, and they want to respect the democratic views of our members.
“I don’t want anybody to go, I think we’re a broad church, and that’s what makes us so strong. It’s good to have the debates and the arguments, but we do it in private. And once we’ve reached an agreement we move on, we get behind whoever the leader is.
“I’ll get behind whoever the leader is if it’s not me. And then we try to win a general election but what we don’t do is have our rows in public because nobody wants to vote for a party that’s rowing with itself.”
She said that Labour MPs shared some responsibility for the fact that voters saw the party as divided.
“We weren’t united, we haven’t been united for four years. And if people are out there on the media saying negative things about the leader or indeed other colleagues, it doesn’t set us in a good place and it’s quite destructive.”
LONG-BAILEY ON... what she’s learned about herself in the leadership race
“You know I’m actually more relaxed about it than I thought I was going to be, because I expected to get an onslaught from certain elements of the media, and I expected to be scrutinised and I expected hostility from certain quarters and warmth and love from others. But I didn’t think that I’d be this calm about it. You’ve just got to get on with it, say what your vision is. If people don’t like it, that’s fine somebody else will be leader.”
LONG-BAILEY ON... Richard Burgon’s ‘peace pledge’ (to give Labour members a vote on whether to launch military action)
“I want us to be a democratic party and for our members to have a more forceful and positive role in policymaking. But I think it’s important to note that, particularly in matters of war, whilst it’s possible to get the view of members you couldn’t rely on them being your first point before you made your decision, because quite often a lot of these decisions have to be taken very quickly by a prime minister.
“I’d never have a problem going out to the members and asking their opinion on any policy, whether that’s war or economic policy... I think asking for views of the membership rather than asking for a vote on every single policy issue, because it could become quite cumbersome.”
LONG-BAILEY ON... consulting members about electoral reform
“I think we should. We’re going to abolish the House of Lords under Rebecca Long-Bailey leadership. And we’re going to replace it with an elected senate outside of London. That will be elected by way of a proportional voting system. So I think we’ve got the opportunity to see how it works in practice.
“One of the concerns I’ve always had about proportional voting, and this is one of the things that’s come out of the Brexit election as well, is that it’s so important to have MP rooted in communities and accountable to local communities, and sometimes proportional voting doesn’t allow that to happen. If there was some system that we could look at that would allow that I’d be far more comfortable with it. That I think that’s the circle that we’ve got to square.
“I think the House of Lords idea is one way that we could experiment but I think, potentially looking at local government could be another one. It’s a discussion that we’ve got to have within the party because there’s certainly a lot of talk about it at the moment.”
LONG-BAILEY ON... living with Angela Rayner
“We don’t back until really late, most nights. Most of time we just talk about what we are having for tea. We haven’t had veg for ages, we’ve not had time. All we’ve got in the house at the minute are Pot Noodles. I had Angela’s last Pot Noodle the other day because there was literally no food. I texted her and said ‘can I have your chicken and mushroom Pot Noodle?’ And she said that’s fine, what’s mine is yours.”
LONG-BAILEY ON... Bernie Sanders
“The Bernie Sanders campaign it’s all about hope and positivity and because of that I think he seems to be doing very well... We’ve got to have a good message, we’ve got to be out there on the media, you know, delivering that message, but it’s always going to be about building that grassroots support and being visible within the community and not just about the party going out and campaigning when there’s an election.”
LONG-BAILEY ON... allegations of bullying with the Labour party
“Like any employer there should be no bullying within the workplace at all, whether it’s the Labour Party, whether it’s one of our offices outside of Labour HQ, it’s not acceptable. We come down quite heavily on any employer that didn’t take action to stomp out bullying or harassment in the workplace. So we should be leading the way on this.”