After going to see Keir Starmer (write up here), I took the opportunity to hear his main challenger for the Labour leadership, Rebecca Long-Bailey. As before, I will try to be fair in my summary of what she said and make it clear where I am commenting in italics so that (if you so wish) you can read my comments in the context of my being a Conservative activist. Unlike Starmer, whose skills as a barrister could be seen in how structured his speech was, Long-Bailey’s was much less constructed, although she was referring to notes, so I put my comments inline rather than at the end.
This was a very different evening to Starmer’s in its feel. In part this was due to the difference in venue – The Wardrobe is a live music and comedy venue rather than a large church. The audience was also different in being much more vocal, not just because of the venue, but the way in which the event was organised and compered by Leeds Momentum and the tone of the “warm up act” speakers. There was much whooping and cheering throughout, although thankfully, no chanting and attempts to sing Long-Bailey’s name to the tune of Seven Nation Army.
The three introductory speakers were from Leeds Young Labour, a Pro-Choice Activist and an LGBT/Asylum/Disability Campaigner. The first referred to Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech to promote the Green Industrial Revolution and bemoaned the current lack of hope for young people with no security, Zero Hours Contracts, debt and lower minimum wage. She declaimed that Long-Bailey offered a secure future, communal housing and scrapping of Universal Credit and that for her, Socialism was not theory but hope.
The second speaker, a Liverpudlian who is an activist in Manchester, declaimed that “it is so fucking boss that one of us can be leader”. She was angry at the state of the world and wanted to fight against the evils of austerity and the callous Tories. She recalled how in the 1970s in Liverpool everywhere there were football clubs in the community but that Thatcher had turned her home town upside down with the pubs all shut and converted to posh flats and her nan now needing someone to help her with her benefits forms because it was too complicated to work out what she was entitled to. Labour is a vehicle for socialism and Long-Bailey will “take no shit from anyone”. Abolishing the House of Lords will be great and that message gets through to ordinary people. Labour is for the homeless, those on benefits, and on Zero Hours Contracts, the many who deserve better.
The third described the fight for justice for LGBT, refugees and climate justice as a single fight and not just against the Tories. He said that during the Blair years the system was institutional torture for asylum seekers and improvements since had not been evenly distributed. HIV had now become a chronic manageable illness, but that meant that sufferers were being moved off PIP and on to Universal Credit but there were no good jobs. He loved how when giving advice surgeries to LGBT asylum seekers, they’d all sat in the waiting area chatting and flirting. The rates of suicide and Spice smoking were like he’d never seen before. There had been a collapse of hope and a dark 10 years in Wakefield.
The three speakers were united in rage and painted a very dark picture of the world as it is. The nearest to lightness was a slightly awkward running “joke” between them, the compere and Long-Bailey about those of them who came from “the wrong side of the Pennines”. They set the tone for Long-Bailey’s pitch to be about feeling and Socialism as the one hope, which contrasted with Starmer’s more managerial and methodical approach to the practical tasks facing the next Labour leader. I had an interesting conversation with the man sat next to me before the event started where he mentioned that, even though he didn’t believe it, he could see why people had been drawn to Boris Johnson as offering a positive, light and likeable message. Most people, even if they wanted better, didn’t see their lives as terrible and blighted by a lack of hope so maybe Corbyn had been too doom and gloom to appeal. He was in two minds about whether to support Starmer for being able to dismantle Johnson methodically but being a bit boring and wooden “like a bank manager” or Long-Bailey and could see that there was a conflict between being appealing to members and being appealing to the electorate, and in particular those who had shifted away from Labour.
The main event
The main attraction came on to the chorus of Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” – “I get knocked out, but I get up again”. She said that as a child she’d spent a lot of time in Leeds as her Auntie Mary lived there after marrying her Uncle Roy, who was as Yorkshire as anyone could be.
It was interesting that even as a “northerner”, Long-Bailey felt the need to establish her local link and credentials in Leeds. It wasn’t surprising that Starmer did so, but while there is much rivalry between Leeds and Manchester, I’m not sure that people are now so steadfastly parochial as to need to be reassured that anyone from anywhere else has sufficient Leeds link to support them. Perhaps unkindly (or due to the reference to Uncle Roy), I had an impression that Long-Bailey comes across as the sort of character that might have been played by Caroline Aherne, but without the humour.
She said that “we are the greatest force for social change” and that Labour would unite and win. The policies she promoted were the ones in the 2019 manifesto and they came from her own experience. Her dad was a trade union rep and her earliest political memories were of listening to him from the top of the stairs when he came home from work in the early 80s and talked of pay disputes and redundancies. Her first job was at 16 in a pawn shop before there was a Labour government and then she remembers in 1997 people springing down the road with a bounce in their step with hope after the election. The last election was the worst defeat in years and included losing 9 seats in Yorkshire and the Humber. The 2017 coalition of votes broke down.
On election night, her mam and dad came over to babysit while she went to the count with her husband. They arrived as the exit poll was announced and she felt like the rug had been pulled from her feet and everything she believed in had been ripped up. Her mum said “the hope’s gone” and cried.
What she believed went wrong was:
(1) This was a Brexit election. They were right to try to bring everyone together but it wasn’t enough for Remain voters and Leave voters didn’t trust that they weren’t trying to reverse the referendum result.
(2) There was no overarching narrative and they lost sight of the need to tie all their policies together and explain how they would generate good, unionised jobs in the areas hit hardest.
(3) Get Brexit Done was so clear a slogan and resonated so much that during the election she’d been shopping in Asda with her son and he’d shouted it out.
Is Green Industrial Revolution really going to have a similar resonance?
(4) Labour didn’t talk about its concrete plans, the Green Industrial Revolution, Electric Vehicles
(5) They lost trust due to anti-semitism claims and a lack of unity. Divided parties don’t win elections. Labour was designed to keep the Tories out forever and should only have rows and disagreements in private, but then once they’ve agreed a position, should publicly all get behind it and the leader to win.
This last point can be contrasted with the way in which Starmer sought to explain how to achieve unity. His proposal seemed more like a mixture of truth and reconciliation, whereas Long-Bailey wanted debate behind closed doors then discipline to obey her as leader once a position had been reached. But there didn’t seem to be any real consideration of how to achieve agreement and unity beyond demanding it. Given that she elsewhere strongly defended the full programme of the 2019 manifesto and that many in Labour have questioned it, merely asserting the authority of the mandate of the leadership vote to follow the leader doesn’t seem to me a realistic approach.
She asked why did Labour see increases in votes in Leeds North West and Leeds North East but falls almost everywhere else in Yorkshire.
This is a very good question and one which has been, at least as far as I can see from the reporting of the internal reviews into the General Election by Labour so far, not asked or answered. She also didn’t answer or suggest any possible answers. From my personal experience of the campaign in Leeds North West, I’d suggest that having a candidate with a clear position on Brexit and a clear position on anti-semitism made a very big difference. Alex Sobel, made it very clear that he opposed Brexit and had little time to pay lip service to respecting the result of the referendum and he also made it very clear that anti-semitism was unacceptable and inexcusable. In both of these he was much clearer and stronger than his leadership in a seat where both positions played well in the areas with the strongest potential support. In Leeds North East, the withdrawal of support for the Conservative candidate due to anti-semitic comments made while he was a UKIP MEP so that there was no campaign at all from the largest party challenging Fabian Hamilton was likely to have had a significant effect and was probably not going to give a great deal of information about how Labour should proceed nationally.
There was a grieving process, but Labour should never doubt in itself that what it promised was deliverable. The aim was to show how life could always get better with no-one left behind. A collective vision of hope.
She said that she had worked hard, studied and got good jobs, but she knew other people who had worked just as hard and not done so. Too much was down to luck at birth, lucky breaks at work, good fortune, or their absence. As a child she’d been excited at the future. She went to the Manchester Museum of Science and Technology and saw how amazing the future could be. But now, life was getting worse, hope was gone, young people can’t buy homes and there is no welfare system.
Hers is an aspirational message. Aspiration doesn’t mean a ladder for a few people but that “we all rise together as communities”. Not social mobility for a lucky few but where insecurity for all is gone. Collective solidarity from the Trade Unions to the NHS. She was nobody’s continuity candidate but stood up for what she herself believed in. She had nominated Corbyn twice because he believed in the same things as her. She voted against the Welfare Bill and she stayed in when the coup happened. She will stay true.
She believes in the Green Industrial Revolution and that public ownership will never be given up. It is consistently popular and necessary because the privatised business could not be trusted – eg Yorkshire Water committed in 2017 not to pay dividends until it had done necessary investments but since then had redistributed £217m in intercompany debt repayments, Royal Mail, instead of solving issues with workers had taken their unions to court, on Huawei you could see how selling off telecoms had meant that we were now lagging behind and reliant on foreign companies, and the £400m of public subsidy which had gone to Northern Rail was an indictment of the current model.
She was fully committed to a manifesto of nationalisation of key utilities. This was the foundation of Labour. The policy was smeared but nobody voted Tory because of nationalisation, it is very popular. She will stand up against rip off privatisers. This has a critical effect on society – we need to make sure that everyone can afford heat and water. There should be democratic ownership, co-operatives and workers rights.
The Green Industrial Revolution will be a silent revolution. It is the biggest lever to bring public ownership of wind and solar power. Collectively owned to give a new era of public luxury with the technology of the future. Access to electric vehicles for all, regardless of income. Good unionised jobs and becoming a world leader in the technology to battle climate change. “It will be our NHS moment and we must fight for it”.
This is clearly the policy area she is most comfortable with as it is the one she is credited with having written. Measures to combat climate change and reduce reliance on fossil fuels are good. But it is not clear how these policies really work in practice. For instance, nationalising the existing power companies is only affordable if they carry on operating commercially as they currently do, otherwise, they will cost more than currently and need that money to come from the state. If they are also then run down in favour of renewable energy, this will have a cost that hasn’t been considered. There is also no real path from here to there for mass provision of electric vehicles so that they are available to all, let alone any consideration of whether providing electric vehicles to all is a better idea than reducing the reliance on cars, whether electric or not. I also wonder where the people to do all the “good unionised jobs” are. The sorts of jobs involved are skilled trades like electricians, heating engineers and plumbers. These are typically currently trades done by independent tradesmen (the white van men derided by fellow candidate, Emily Thornberry) and it isn’t clear at all that they want to become unionised state employees or that the people with those current skills would appreciate losing their livelihoods to a state heating and power service. Or that such a service would find people wanting to train in those skills. Is there a clamour among the workers in Amazon fulfillment centres on zero hour contracts to retrain as electricians which can only be met by the government instigating this Green Industrial Revolution?
She also wants a democratic revolution. It isn’t just about where power sits but who has it and what they can do, so not about moving the House of Lords to York but having an elected Senate (not in London) with a mandate to hold government to account. Salford’s motto is “the welfare of the people is the highest law” and this should be the role of the Senate to protect. Every decision should be reviewed by it on the basis of what it does for quality of life, impact on well being and the climate and, sustainability. She would devolve real power to the regions and work with Scots and Welsh Labour. Taking big money out of politics and ending “the gentlemen’s club”.
I think there is a case for reform of the House of Lords to replace it with an elected body (see here for instance) but I’m not sure that it is a positive move to give it such a limited remit in how it reviews legislation and policy. I can see the appeal to Labour of such a body when it is in opposition and believes the government not to care about such things and where the government might not have a majority in the Senate. But if that was its role, why would a Labour government not charge itself with the duty to maximise the welfare of the people without the need for a Senate to hold it to account? And, while Labour supporters might scoff, the welfare of the people is considered by most politicians and voters of every party to be paramount. The real differences are almost always in the ways the different parties believe are best to achieve that and it would be very peculiar to create a Senate which had to interpret things through the lens of what Long-Bailey though was right rather than what was supported by the electorate at any particular time.
She wants to build a mass movement with open and democratic policy making at every stage from the grass roots up. Party meetings should be about political education not procedural points and there should be full open selection. Members should be trusted by MPs to decide.
The reference to procedural motions is clearly a Labour in-joke as Starmer also made one. Though quite why they couldn’t ditch their love for composites and procedural pedantry without it being a leadership issue I don’t know. There was a big cheer for the call for open selections, which would require all sitting MPs to compete to be reselected for their seats rather than having to be deselected first. It would certainly keep MPs on their toes and might be the mechanism by which Long-Bailey expects to ensure that the Parliamentary Labour Party falls behind its leader and the positions she takes. However, there is an issue about whether MPs ought to be mere delegates of their local party membership or representatives of all their constituents.
There will be a real battle ahead to hold the Tories to account. Labour must have a clear plan to win back where they’d lost. The media won’t give an easy ride because some of the press want to destroy Labour.
This understates the task ahead as Starmer pointed out in his speech – just winning back what was lost takes Labour to 2015 or 2017 and remaining in opposition.
She wants to be the first woman to lead Labour and to win the next General Election. Everything has to be fought for, as the NHS was. Workers rights like the weekend were only won by unions fighting for them, same for women’s votes. Never give up. She is just one woman with thousands alongside and they stand on the shoulders of giants who suffered but fought for a better world.
I wonder whether this was intended as a nod to Newton (as quoted on the £2 coin) or to Oasis.
Unlike Starmer’s event, the Q&A was not as long or in depth, with time only for 6 questions and time instead spent at the end for the Momentum organiser to get the audience to text straight in to Long-Bailey’s campaign and to go to their constituency party nomination meetings, with details and dates of each one happening locally. The value of Momentum’s role in organising supporters to vote like this was obvious and a contrast to the way in which Starmer didn’t even descend to the nitty gritty of imploring people to go and take the steps needed to ensure his nomination and to join his campaign (although to be fair, he has a long lead in this in any event). This might well end up being the decisive factor when it comes to the final membership vote.
A lot of the questions were more statements or speeches than questions, so my apologies if I’ve missed a nuance in trying to render them in question form!
(1) What do we need to do to sell the ideas to double the 2017 wave and win?
Long-Bailey recounted that when door knocking in her seat in Salford, most people were still coming out for Labour, but she met one couple who said “Not this time, we work hard and Labour are just for handouts to those who don’t”. She replied that no, Labour were there to pick you up if you fell. This didn’t work and they persisted by saying “Labour is not for people who do well”. Nothing worked to persuade them. The question was how to show that Labour really was about betterment. The message has to be about aspiration because that is what Socialism is. Everything we do is about improving your life, but at the election there was no unifying message and people didn’t read what Ian Lavery described as “the book of hope” (the manifesto).
This question gets to the heart of the problem faced by any party which has suffered a major defeat – what do you do to win? It started from the premise that the ideas were sound (which is understandable but if being truly reflective might need testing). The answer was telling in the anecdote of the unpersuadable former Labour voters perceiving the party as not being for those who had done well. But there was no real answer in terms of how you explain and persuade that focusing on “what if you fail, we’ll pick you up” is aspirational. Earlier in the speech, Long-Bailey had talked of improving the lives of all, which is aspirational, but is it an aspiration of the couple who felt they had done the right thing and deserved what they had? Long-Bailey described how others may have worked as hard as her but been unlucky, but is that a perception that drives people like this couple? Do many people consider themselves lucky to have a home and a job? Ought Labour to be saying that they are lucky? I think most people consider their own lives to be normal, not especially lucky or privileged and can find their happiness in it, even if there are many things they would like improved. Calling them lucky and warning about what might happen if they fail is not likely to appeal.
(2) What will Long-Bailey do to enable the participation of the 1/5th of Labour members who identify as disabled?
She said that she was doing a videoconference call with Disability Labour, would look at the local and national party doing more online meetings and thought that every constituency party should consider having a disability officer as being as much a staple of their organisation as having a Trade Union officer.
I was surprised at quite how large a proportion of the Labour membership identifies as disabled.
(3) What further detail about empowering communities is there?
When the government talks about devolution it is not about devolving power but about devolving responsibility for cuts. Their focus is on helping their seats rather than where the need is. This is not just about bins, councils provide life and death services. She wants real investment, real powers, real strategy on local industry and infrastructure by local people because they have the best insight into what their areas need.
This doesn’t really provide more detail, just more ambitions. It is unclear how this fits with what central government would do under Long-Bailey PM – if there is this much devolution, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for major practical decisions to be made by her. How do you deliver a Green Industrial Revolution if local people decide that they don’t want to implement it in their area?
(4) This questioner was annoyed at the narrative that supporters of Corbyn and Long-Bailey were called “hard left” and “extremist” when “the ones who voted with the Tories” are called moderates and wondered how she would get to change this so that she was the moderate and her internal opponents were the extremists.
She said that she found this annoying too but that they needed to stop calling people cult members or Red Tories because in the end they were all Socialists. They need to have a healthy debate privately, reach a conclusion then unite behind the leader. They shouldn’t undermine the leader but can replace them next time if they want to.
The question highlighted the difficulty of achieving unity. The questioner really didn’t sound like he wanted to stop telling critics to eff off and join the Tories.
(5) The Far Right have long threatened ethnic and LGBT people and previous Labour leaders have given in. Labour is prominent in the fight for minorities and should oppose the Islamophobia of Prevent and should support freedom of movement. Yes?
Yes, Labour won’t be putting “controls on immigration” on mugs if Long-Bailey is leader. Must celebrate diversity, Salford is built on immigration, from the Irish who built the canals to the vibrant Yemeni community now. Need to empower members with data to enable them to rebut the bad things that people say are caused locally by immigration so they can argue back. A local man had “Blacks Out” grafittied on his house in Salford recently and it harked back to the 70s and 80s “No Dogs, Blacks or Irish” signs, but hearteningly the local community gathered round to support.
(6) How will you deal with a hostile press?
Have to expect criticism from good journalists doing their job properly. But journalists shouldn’t smear family or just for the sake of it. Need to set up a rebuttals unit like Blair had with Alastair Campbell to have quick an robust responses to make sure that false information and unfair attacks get shot down before they have gone viral. Communities are the best means to get the message out. Labour members do lots in communities but are reticent to announce that they are Labour members when they’re doing it. Need to talk about politics at work, in the pub with friends, like handing out copies of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists in the old days. Need to be ruthless.
Surprisingly no boo for Blair or Campbell here! The call for members to openly state their affiliation when doing community work might not be very effective as many community organisations prefer to be apolitical and indeed, many people going to volunteer at them would prefer to focus on the work they are doing than to use it as an opportunity to sell their party. It might not be the case in Salford & Eccles, where there are relatively few Conservative members, but in large parts of the country, a lot of community work will be done by Conservative members and voters. Turning up and using that as an opportunity to fight political battles won’t necessarily go down very well. From a personal perspective, I found the proselytising protagonist of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists utterly insufferable (as indeed did many of the other characters) and I can imagine the couple who Long-Bailey failed to persuade on the doorstep would feel the same.
This was a very contrasting event from a very different potential leader of the opposition to Starmer. It wasn’t very structured and I felt lacked any clear plan to get from the A of a heavy defeat to the B of victory. The language and tone were well pitched to an audience of members, but didn’t seem to be particularly persuasive to those, like the couple in Salford who said “Labour is not for people who do well”. I joked about Long-Bailey being a little like a Caroline Aherne character and there is an extent to which she is in these meetings coming across as a personable down to earth northern mum, but without the wit or humour to benefit from such folksiness. And while there is passion there, it is not clear how this translates into action rather than just getting very angry about stuff and about people who just won’t listen when you believe you are completely in the right. That was a big problem for Corbyn and it would be an even bigger problem for Long-Bailey if that was the principal way in which she ended up being his heir. On top of this, despite making a passing reference to the impact of anti-semitism issues, there was nothing at all said to give much confidence that she would or could do anything and that ought to be an easy way to break from the current leadership without trashing the policy elements or the broader promotion of Socialism.