Jeremy Corbyn’s election night speech did little to address the fact he led Labour to its worst result since 1935. However, he did at least acknowledge that he probably wasn’t the best person to lead the party into the next election. Many Labour MPs were quick to take to the airwaves to play the blame game – and in some cases position themselves for a bid for the top job.
Succession has been a main topic of conversation within the Labour party for some time now. In the days before the election, senior party figures were discussing how to replace Jeremy Corbyn should the party fail to win enough seats to form a government. Just as was the case in 2010 and 2017, ambitious candidates started to sound out colleagues and ready themselves to move quickly should the occasion call.
Now that situation has come to be – but it’s still not clear exactly when the leadership contest will commence. Corbyn has suggested he will stay on temporarily. Should he go sooner rather than later, John McDonnell could step in. Under a plan discussed by union officials, the shadow chancellor would be appointed interim leader, allowing for a leadership contest in 2020.
Not all the party’s MPs would be thrilled at the prospect of continuity Corbynism in the guise of McDonnell at the helm indefinitely. But, thanks to a change in the rules in the autumn, it is up to the national executive committee to appoint any interim leader — and that committee is firmly weighted in favour of Corbynism. Since Tom Watson bowed out at this election, there is no deputy leader to step in.
There are two reasons why delaying a leadership contest until autumn next year is thought to be in the interests of the Corbyn wing. The first is that holding the contest immediately after this heavy defeat could help those candidates promising a break from Corbynism. The second is that none of the candidates favoured by Corbyn and McDonnell is quite ready for primetime. They would benefit from a shadow cabinet reshuffle and the chance to prove themselves in more high-profile jobs. Think of how Michael Howard promoted David Cameron and George Osborne in 2005.
Two candidates who could benefit from an early race are Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. They have been rather quiet over the course of the election campaign — or, to quote one party aide, have been ‘sidelined’. The leadership has largely sent only the most loyal shadow ministers on to the airwaves. ‘It’s an arrangement that suits both sides,’ says an insider. Those in the party’s upper echelons view Thornberry and Starmer as too Remain and metropolitan to appeal to voters behind the crumbling red wall. Meanwhile, should a race begin, the two could find it useful not to have been recently made to defend the party’s record on anti-Semitism.
If Thornberry stands she could pitch herself as a loyal Corbyn supporter keen to move the party closer to the membership’s pro-EU stance, while taking a tougher stance on anti-Semitism. She hinted at this in her speech at her election count – paying tribute to Corbyn but talking about the need to learn. Among some Labour MPs, Starmer is seen as the great hope. He has impressed over the past two years with his work both in the Commons and behind the scenes evolving the party’s Brexit position.
But Starmer faces two obstacles. Firstly, he is a man. Pressure is mounting to ensure the next full-time leader is female, which would finally allow Labour to shake off the unenviable tag of being the only mainstream British party never to have been led by a woman. Second, some Labour MPs worry Starmer can be wooden. ‘I don’t know if he emotionally connects with people,’ says one.
Neither Starmer nor Thornberry would be McDonnell’s first pick. Of the candidates more likely to continue the spirit of Corbynism, Rebecca Long-Bailey is seen as McDonnell’s protégé and the heir apparent. Were he to move in as an interim leader, she is tipped to become shadow chancellor. A sign of her closeness to the leadership can be found in the fact she has an office close to McDonnell and Corbyn in the Norman Shaw building of parliament. It was given to her when she was appointed shadow chief secretary to the treasury, and she retained it even when she moved brief. A docker’s daughter from Manchester, Long-Bailey is a proud socialist and a loyal ally to Corbyn and McDonnell. During the election campaign, she was given the task of representing Labour in the BBC’s seven-party debate.
Another name that comes up in leadership conversations is Angela Rayner. She has a striking backstory: leaving school at 16 with no qualifications to have her first child; later going back into education and becoming a care worker. In this campaign, she seems to have been laying the groundwork to pitch herself as a Kinnock-esque figure. If she enters the leadership fray, she may present herself as someone who sits on the left but who nonetheless understands the need for reform. However, Rayner is close to Long-Bailey — they share a flat — and there is a chance that only one of them would stand.
If Long-Bailey and Rayner are viewed as keepers of the Corbynism flame, there was one candidate who Corbyn allies hoped would be the person to do so in a more radical way: Laura Pidcock. But Pidcock – who shot to notoriety when she gave an interview saying she would never be friends with a Tory – lost her seat of North West Durham to the Conservatives so is out of the picture.
There are also dark horses in the race, including Jess Phillips who is being talked up as the candidate best equipped to represent the moderate wing of the party. Phillips didn’t deny that she could tip her hat into the race in an interview on election night. Lisa Nandy – the MP for Wigan – may pitch herself as the candidate best placed to reconnect the party to its heartlands.
The scale of defeat means that the leadership contest will be a battle for the soul of Labour. The Labour moderates are determined to get their party back and the Corbynites are determined to keep hold of it. Only one side can win.