Labour has nothing to say to large chunks of Britain, may well never win power again and is in fact an irrelevance to the political direction of our country.
Yes, yes, we know all that already. But if you are a political nerd, as I am, you can’t knock a good leadership contest as it unfolds. And the current battle to become Leader of the Opposition is shaping up rather nicely.
Some had been writing it up as a procession, with former Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer – he of the luxuriant hair and slippery ability simultaneously to project himself both as a diehard socialist and a centre-left moderniser, the first Kinnockite Corbynista – simply bound to win.
After all, a hitherto dominant hard left could not find a stand-out candidate and ended up fielding the underwhelming Rebecca Long-Bailey, despite the doubts of the left’s Godfather figures, such as John McDonnell.
But a poll of party members conducted by Survation for the influential Labour List website has rather scuppered this narrative. It showed Long-Bailey on course to beat Starmer, albeit narrowly, with the other three contenders – Jess Phillips, Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry distant also-rans. The poll served as a timely reminder that the hard left has won almost every internal election in the Labour party for the past five years.
I had been one of those those who doubted Long-Bailey’s chances of winning, mainly because she’s so colourless she might as well be a hologram of a water biscuit. But now I am reassessing that initial judgment. Partly this is because she has become marginally more interesting, with her Catholicism leading her to depart from authorised leftist thinking on the issue of abortion. But mainly it is because she has a powerful secret weapon in the form of her London flatmate Angela Rayner.
Rayner, it is commonly agreed, looks like she is going to win the deputy leadership by a landslide. The bookies have her as a massive odds-on favourite. And she has backed Long-Bailey for the leadership. While not in the Phillips class for outrageous utterances, she nonetheless also has a certain frankness which goes down well in contemporary left-wing circles. By projecting the idea of a joint ticket with Rayner, Long-Bailey can leave the conventional, smoothie-chops, production line politico Starmer in a pickle. Think Thelma & Louise remade as a British political liberation movie.
The advantages for Long-Bailey of sharing the stage with her running mate are numerous. First, she can nudge nearly everyone who intends to vote for Rayner as deputy, which is most of the party membership, into considering herself as their natural candidate for leader – the other half of the dream team.
Secondly, the idea of flatmates forming a partnership at the Labour helm is in itself eye-catching, lending itself to all kinds of useful ‘soft sofa’ joint-interviews that can help project Long-Bailey as a rounded figure or genial character: Who gets up first in the mornings? Who hogs the bathroom? Why did they decide on Becky for the leadership and Angie for deputy?
Thirdly, of course, there is the outright feminist aspect. Most Labour members agonise about having never elected a woman leader. The more they are caused to ponder this anomaly, the lonelier and more vulnerable Starmer will seem. He’s not just the only male candidate left in this race, he is also a male candidate from central casting: a middle class, middle aged, southern, married, wealthy, heterosexual white male. Nul points there from any of the many diversity juries inspecting the contest for reasons to be offended.
No doubt Thornberry, Nandy and Phillips will all make the point at hustings events that Labour’s failure ever to elect a woman leader is becoming an excruciating embarrassment. But in doing so they will unwittingly help Long-Bailey, shown by the polling to be the only woman who can potentially beat Starmer.
The dynamics between Long-Bailey and Rayner are in themselves interesting. Both from working class, northern backgrounds, it was Long-Bailey who took the more conventional, university route to professional success, while Rayner the teen mum ascended purely through trade union activism.
Bolstered by Rayner’s more assertive personality, I believe Long-Bailey will be able to convey the idea of a dynamic duo who can take the fight to the Old Etonian Boris Johnson. If she campaigns astutely then the thought of opting for Starmer, the latest plausible bloke, all booted and suited and vain enough to lick himself, will surely become rather depressing to a Labour selectorate itching to install a female leader anyway.
So long as they do not let complacency set in, this is good news for the Tories. Because if Long-Bailey and Rayner do win the respective positions of leader and deputy leader, Labour will surely be on course for another defeat. Policy-wise neither appears to have learned anything from Corbyn’s drubbing and both will just keep telling party activists what they want to hear. The Thelma and Louise of Westminster would drive their party off the edge of a cliff at the next election. And there is a growing chance that they will be given the opportunity to do so.