Steven Fielding

Richard Burgon, political genius?

Richard Burgon, political genius?
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Richard Burgon is not going to be Labour’s next deputy leader. Burgon trails the favourite Angela Rayner by some 42 points, according to the latest YouGov poll. While Rayner has been nominated by 363 constituency parties, Burgon is backed by just 75. This places him third, behind Dawn Butler, in the race to become number two in the Labour party, with little prospect of making up the numbers he needs to win. But just because Burgon won’t win, it doesn’t mean his campaign hasn’t been successful.

Burgon’s supporters certainly aren’t fazed. Take the hundred or so who gathered together last week at a meeting to support Burgon’s campaign. The meet-up was organised by Chorlton socialist club, an activist group in the heart of radical south Manchester’s Guardian-reading muesli belt. Made up of a mixture of veterans fighting capitalism since the 1970s and those in their twenties who joined the Labour party just to support Jeremy Corbyn, this band of Burgon brothers (and sisters) might have been few but they were surprisingly happy.

To them, Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in 2015 changed everything, even if it also meant electoral doom in 2019. As a warm-up speaker from Manchester Momentum claimed, Corbyn gave her and everybody else in the room a feeling of hope by ‘shifting history in our favour’. Quoting Rosa Luxembourg, she said now was not the time for cowardice. Other agreed. Another speaker made the point that if Corbyn gave the party back its values, only Burgon would ensure there was no return to the bad old days of ‘austerity-lite’. For one young trade union activist, Burgon is the nearest thing Labour has to another Corbyn.

The self-portrait that emerged from these speakers – and others from Stop the War and the People’s Assembly against Austerity – was of a group of noble and self-sacrificing socialists opposed by an evil, all-powerful capitalist establishment. And, despite Labour’s worst defeat since 1935 – for which Brexit and the media were, of course, to blame – they believed they were, thanks to Corbyn, still on the cusp of socialism.

When appearing on stage, Burgon took this paranoid self-love to higher level. In person, Burgon is not the awkward figure he is on television. His weakness with interviewers is an inability to finesse his case under pointed questioning. But when surrounded by fellow-believers who crave certainty, that becomes a strength. He is even rather funny.

Burgon began his address by vividly evoking the 2016 attempt to remove Corbyn as leader, and so ‘the removal of you’ he told the audience. If assailed by the establishment, Burgon made it clear that Labour MPs were amongst their most implacable antagonists. It was an effective and emotional prelude to his basic pitch.

Burgon promised he would continue Corbyn’s work by being the members’ voice, or perhaps given his own stentorian style, their megaphone. Burgon’s performance in Chorlton was designed to eviscerate any differences between himself and the members: he was they and they were him. In that he explicitly sought to take up Corbyn’s mantle. So closely did Burgon associate himself with the present Labour leader he described his campaign’s key positions as the ‘three pillars of Corbynism’: giving members more influence over candidate selection; formally and firmly recommitting the party to the principle of public ownership; and allowing members a say over whether MPs should support future military actions.

Rebecca Long-Bailey denies she is the Continuity Corbynite candidate for the Labour leadership. Burgon in contrast would love to be described that way. His campaign is, after all, chaired by Laura Pidcock, who some believe would have run as leader with Corbyn’s discreet backing had she not lost her seat in December. Burgon is also supported by some of Corbynism’s leading figures, such as John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, and Len McCluskey. In reality, Burgon is not running against Angela Rayner for deputy then, but against Long-Bailey for the bigger prize of being leader of the Labour left under what is likely to be a Keir Starmer leadership.

His ‘three pillars of Corbynism’ are markers set down in anticipation of Starmer moving the party towards the centre ground. More immediately, his campaign is an implied critique of Long-Bailey’s on issues held dear by irredentist Corbynites, something which has led to considerable discontent even amongst those intending to vote for her. Burgon can even claim credit for forcing Long-Bailey to pledge she would have Corbyn in her shadow cabinet, something he had called for just 24 hours before.

It is on the issue of anti-Semitism to which Burgon can make his strongest claim to the Corbynite mantle. In 2016, Burgon was embarrassed after denying he had ever described Zionism as the ‘enemy of peace’ only to be confronted with video evidence from two years before in which he said precisely that. Today he is just one of two candidates in the leadership and deputy leadership race who refuses to endorse recommendations from the Jewish Board of Deputies on how Labour should tackle anti-Semitism in the party. Long-Bailey’s acceptance is seen as a sign of weakness by some of the hard left. In contrast, when Burgon confirmed his position in Chorlton he received the loudest applause of the night.

Corbynism was never a fully coherent movement. Defeat in December and the Labour leader’s imminent departure has seen its strands unravel to the extent that some leading Corbyn supporters have endorsed Starmer even though he is also supported by many of those who tried to unseat him in 2016. Meanwhile, Long-Bailey has found it hard to please the irredentists who believe in no compromise with the electorate and those who believe the last general election showed a rethink is necessary. In the wake of what now looks like her inevitable defeat, Burgon will be waiting to pick up the pieces.

Steven Fielding is professor of political history at the University of Nottingham and is writing ‘The Labour party: from Callaghan to Corbyn’ for Polity Press, to be published in 2021. On Twitter he is @PolProfSteve