To rebuild the Red Wall - we need the right leader

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

The 2019 General Election defeat has been widely touted as the worst night for Labour since 1935. This is usually followed by a sweeping statement that Labour will now be out of power for a decade – that it is 2029 not 2024 which offers our next hope of forming a Government.

I disagree.

Knocking on doors in mining towns and villages that were once Labour heartlands – I rarely met an ex-Labour voter who seemed happy to vote Conservative. They didn’t think the Tories had done a good job for the past ten years. They didn’t trust the promises they were now making on the NHS, police and schools. They felt torn between a rock and a hard place and they simply thought Boris Johnson was the ‘least bad option’ (and they wanted Brexit done). As I mentioned in my previous article, the key stumbling blocks to them voting Labour this time were Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn and a manifesto that seemed too good to be true.

In the next couple of months, Labour members have the opportunity to address one of these stumbling blocks. A chance to elect a new leader. This choice will be the difference between forming a Labour Government in 2024 or leaving the most vulnerable in our society to another decade of Tory cuts and an economy that does only work for the few. We must get this right.

When doing so, we need to look beyond our own membership. We need to pick someone who not only embodies our own values, but someone who can appeal to both our recently-lost Labour heartland voters and to those swing voters in the middle. Someone who can build a skilled front bench coalition across our broad church and keep infighting to a minimum. Crucially – we also need to pick someone who can both oppose Boris Johnson and can handle the media. We know the mainstream media is not on our side. But we can’t just dismiss them or their relevance to voters. If we do – we will not win.

Below, I set out my thoughts on the four leadership candidates (in alphabetical order). As always – I would love to hear what you think – please do get in touch!

Rebecca Long-Bailey

I hate the term ‘Continuity Corbyn’. Long-Bailey is an accomplished and successful Member of Parliament, with shadow cabinet experience. She played a crucial role in forming our Green Industrial Revolution policy and she is someone who embodies the socialist values of a large swathe of our members.

But, as I mentioned above, we need someone who does more than just embody our values. The other three remaining candidates have great ‘left’ credentials too. Plus, whilst her experience since being elected in 2015 is impressive and should not be dismissed, she is still relatively young and inexperienced candidate and I'm concerned about her ability to build that broad church front bench that we need. However, my main concern with Becky is how she will be portrayed by the press and perceived by voters. ‘Continuity Corbyn’ is indeed patronising with undertones of misogyny. That won’t stop the media using it. She will be running uphill against a media onslaught from day 1, and that will not help us win back our heartland voters and win over our swing voters.

Quite simply - if she is successful in her leadership bid, our chances of winning in 2024 are slim to none. We need to put pragmatism over ideology – too many people are relying on us. For those wanting to remain true to pure Corbynism, I urge you to also consider the long-term. If we stand on a similar platform in 2024 and face a similar defeat, not only do we let down all of the people who desperately need a Labour Government, but a return to centrism in 2024 would be almost inevitable.

I do hope that Long-Bailey is given the chance to play a key role in the next shadow cabinet. We need people like her on our front bench. But she is not the leader we need for 2024.

Lisa Nandy

For many people, Lisa Nandy was a bit of an unknown at the beginning of this leadership race. The MP for Wigan has been in Parliament for a decade, has had several ministerial roles including a stint in the Shadow Cabinet, is seen as ‘soft left' and has a broad church of support across the PLP.

I’ve been lucky enough to hear Lisa speak at several fringe events at the Labour Party Conference in the past couple of years and I’ve always been impressed. Her work on towns really resonated with me – as someone who grew up in Middlesbrough and was standing for Parliament in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. I had rarely heard a front-line politician articulate so well what I was hearing on the doorstep – and put it into a context that wasn’t dismissive or patronising. Nandy understands our heartlands voters in a way so few politicians really do – and I have absolute faith in her ability to win them back – crucial if we want to have a shot at 2024.

Moving onto the media - if you haven’t watched her Andrew Neil interview – I suggest you do so now. She is not the most dynamic of public speakers, but she handled that interview masterfully. Not only did she come across well (she really has that ‘likability’ factor which will appeal to the swing voter) but she stood up for herself in a way that was both strong and endearing. She is one of the least experienced candidates in those situations – but if she can handle Andrew Neil like that now – it promises great things for the next few years and bodes well for winning over swing voters. The jury is still out on how she would handle Boris Johnson at the dispatch box – but given how she has handled herself over the campaign so far – I have no major concerns.

Keir Starmer

I love Keir (but I’ve always had an intellectual crush on good barristers). He’s extremely intelligent, articulate and analytical, and his professional experience as a QC and Director of Public Prosecutions mean that he will be able to systematically tear Boris Johnson apart week-on-week at the ballot box. He will come across as the much-needed adult in the room. A safe pair of hands for the office of Prime Minister.

On the media side, he seems to handle himself well enough. He’s experienced enough to

deal with difficult questions, to think on the spot and not to get tangled in knots. His record as the DPP may come under some scrutiny – but overall, I don’t think he would have a harder time in the media than any other Labour leader would.

My main concerns is that he is ‘too Remain-y’ and ‘too London’.

I have spent the majority of my professional career living in central London – with a network

of left-wing Guardian-reading friends and colleagues (alongside the occasional Times-reading Conservative). This is a long way away from where I grew up and where I was standing to represent last year. The concerns of Labour voters in Skelton and Brotton are not the same as the concerns of Labour voters in Holborn and St Pancras. If Keir really understood that, he would have taken a different approach as Shadow Brexit Secretary. Whilst he will indeed appeal to swing voters, I am not sure he will be able to win back our heartlands.

For me, this is why he is not my first choice as leader.

Emily Thornberry

Assuming Thornberry manages to get enough CLP support to get on the ballot (at the time of writing, she was still c.20 nominations short) – she is also a relatively safe pair of hands. Plenty of experience before she entered Parliament (as I mentioned – I do love a barrister) as well as shadowing Johnson as Foreign Secretary and taking PMQs at the ballot box. She is competent and capable – and she has a certain charisma that works well when public speaking, all of which make me think she will go over well with Swing voters.

My key concerns with Emily are similar to those I have with Keir – a bit ‘too Remainy’ and a bit too ‘London’. I don’t think she fully understands our heartlands and she will struggle to win those voters back (that ‘white van’ tweet will forever be a thorn in her side), and I also think she will find it hard to overcome the inevitable media onslaught that a Labour leader attracts. Her performance on Andrew Neil was decent, but there are a number of things in her past which make her easy tabloid fodder (such as the alleged hypocrisy when it comes to schooling her children). I’m not saying that it is right or fair – but it is a hazard of the job.

Decisions, decisions!

Weighing it all up, I will be casting my vote for Lisa Nandy. Her understanding of, and appeal

to, our heartland voters is absolutely key to unlocking an election win in 2024. My second preference will go to Keir Starmer.

But whomever wins, there should a place in the Shadow Cabinet for all of these candidates. We need a diverse broad church of talent to win the next election. And most importantly, this April, I hope we can all place the division and infighting behind us – unite behind the winning candidate and focus on why we joined the Labour Party in the first place – to make a real difference.

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