We need to learn the lessons of Corbyn’s wins
Identifying Labour’s future leaders used to be a relatively easy job, certainly when compared against the Tories. Gaitskell, Wilson, Callaghan, Smith and Brown were all clearly identifiable as strong contenders five years or more before they took on the job. Blair, at that same distance, could have been seen (rightly, as it turned out), as a future potential leader but not the next one. Kinnock and Ed Miliband were a little harder to pick but both were up and coming cabinet or shadow cabinet members at times when a generational jump was to be expected. Even Foot was a heavyweight, if one whose time, after Callaghan’s win in 1976, looked to have passed.
And then Jeremy Corbyn happened and the magic circle was forever broken. No longer was the shortlist restricted to a small number of cabinet or shadow cabinet members. No longer did popularity with and support among MPs matter. All that counted, once nominated, was the ability to appeal in the heat of the moment to Labour’s members and sign-up supporters.
Since then, the influence of MPs in the process has waned even further: the threshold for nominations has dropped from 15% to 10%, while new requirements for nominations from local associations and affiliated bodies have been introduced. Those changes favour both the left, who have a natural advantage among members, and also those with name recognition. Ironically, Corbyn himself might have found it difficult to be nominated in 2015 under the current rules as unions might have been unwilling to back what was seen, at the start of his campaign, as the traditional purely gesture candidacy of the Labour left.
However, Corbyn did stand and did win. Twice. Labour’s membership has clearly shifted far from where it was when it elected Miliband, never mind from where it was when it elected Blair (the future three-times election-winner took 58% of the Labour members’ votes in 1994). It’s possible that Labour’s membership is currently undergoing another seismic change with reports of a sizeable drop due to Corbyn’s equivocation and inertness on Brexit but Labour is being uncharacteristically coy in publishing numbers.
Not that any current drop in membership really matters. Even if members are leaving over the attitudes of a 1970s Eurosceptic, the next leader is almost certain to be of a new generation and the ‘registered supporter’ concept means that it’s a doddle for those people to take part in the next election, whether renewed member of not.
Which brings us to the question of who that might be. The only five potential candidates listed in the betting at less than 25/1 are Emily Thornberry (6/1), Keir Starmer and Angela Raynor (10/1), and John McDonnell and Rebecca Long-Bailey (16/1). However, I have my doubts about each.
Thornberry doesn’t seem that close to Corbyn and considering the prominence of Brexit, Venezuela and Russia as mainstream issues (not to mention other favoured Labour topics like the Middle East), the Shadow Foreign Secretary has made remarkably little impact, either in the media or in parliament. She has the appearance of a compromise candidate, which might have been an advantage in previous electoral systems but not this one.
Starmer is, by a country mile, the most administratively capable individual on Labour’s front bench and the only one I’d trust to run a department of state. What he’s not is a leader. He reverts too readily to being a capable barrister acting on instructions. I have little sense of what he stands for or what motivates him, if anything. In a leadership election, that would be fatal.
John McDonnell, by contrast, has no problem in saying what he stands for. His problem is a different one. If the vacancy, post-Corbyn, were caused by political factors (e.g. a lost election), what value would there be in electing McDonnell as successor, even if he does understand the mechanics of politics better than Corbyn? Even if Labour were to win and McDonnell become Chancellor, with Corbyn standing down in the same parliament and experience counting for more than it would in opposition, McDonnell would by then almost certainly be into his seventies.
As for Raynor and Long-Bailey, while I wouldn’t write their chances off, nor are they setting the political world on fire.
Which is not unlike how it was in 2015 and, as such, means we ought to keep more than an eye on other options. One that strikes me as extremely good value is Dawn Butler, who is widely available at 100/1 (the same as Richard Burgon, who should also be shorter, and Jon Lansman and Gisela Stuart, who shouldn’t).
Why Butler? Primarily because she seems very close to Corbyn. To indulge in a little Kremlinology, she sits next to him at PMQs, despite her junior status within the shadow cabinet. That seating position is entirely Corbyn’s decision and shouldn’t be ignored as a triviality.
If Corbyn does endorse a successor when he retires – and I think a lifelong campaigner is likely to do so – and if the Party retains an attachment to the politics and the person of Corbyn by that point, such an endorsement will make a big difference. At the very minimum, it’s almost certain to ensure they gain the nominations necessary to reach the ballot paper. Butler could well get it.
Butler also has a key strength of her own: she clearly believes in what she’s saying. Never mind that what she says (and how she says it) might not be best designed to appeal to Worcester Woman; the next Labour leadership election isn’t about them. It’s about capturing the mood of the members and supporters by appealing directly to what motivates them. That takes a tremendous confidence, if not a little shamelessness – Butler can tick both boxes.
One other factor will play to her favour. In a Party where identity characteristics matter, Labour’s record of having only ever elected men as leader – and white men at that – is not a cause for celebration. The race card will be particularly relevant if the Tories have already replaced May and done so with a non-white candidate of their own, as is very possible.
None of this is to say that she will succeed Corbyn. It is, however, to say that her odds should be far shorter than the 100/1 currently on offer.