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Rebecca Long-Bailey was anointed as Jeremy Corbyn's successor. So what went wrong?
A new book sheds light on the Labour party's post-election scramble for power
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Today’s story is about the race to succeed Jeremy Corbyn. It’s about how the responsibility to run for the leadership from the left fell to Old Trafford-born Rebecca Long-Bailey, and why she lost the race. If you find this piece interesting, you will love our first members’ podcast next week - details of which are at the end of this post.
At around 11.30 pm on election night last December, the small team of comrades around Jeremy Corbyn got the final confirmation they needed. The night’s exit poll had suggested they would lose key seats to the Conservatives, handing Boris Johnson a comfortable majority in the House of Commons and a strong mandate to “Get Brexit Done.”
Now, as the deep red Northumberland constituency of Blyth Valley fell to the Tories, they came face to face with the scale of the subsidence in their heartlands. If places like that were going blue, the much-vaunted Red Wall of working class Labour constituencies wouldn’t survive the night. When Corbyn turned up at Labour HQ after midnight, the party workers who remained there were sitting motionless, heads in hands.
Jeremy Corbyn and Rebecca Long-Bailey appear together at a party event
A few minutes before 4 am, when only the insomniacs and political anoraks were still awake, something else happened that would take on outsized significance in the months ahead. Word started to spread among journalists and activists that Laura Pidcock, Labour MP for North West Durham, had lost her seat. Pidcock was 32 and had only held her seat since 2017. After studying politics at Manchester Met and spending her twenties as a councillor and working for an anti-racism charity, she had risen fast on the left of the party.
Deeply tribal, she made a point of never socialising with the other side, once saying that she had "absolutely no intention of being friends with any Tories.” She was so confident of retaining her seat that she hadn’t written a concession speech. To most people following the election, her loss was a relatively minor subplot on a dramatic night. But in the circle around the Labour leader, it was a disaster. Because up until election night, Pidcock was considered by many people around Corbyn to be his most promising successor.
Pidcock’s ejection from the parliamentary Labour party threw a spanner into the delicate task of finding a new leadership candidate for The Project, the name used to refer to the people around Corbyn and their longterm objective of recasting the British economy in a more socialist shape.
Their attempt to do so, and the drama of how it flamed out at last year’s election, is brilliantly narrated in a new book by the Westminster journalists Patrick Maguire and Gabriel Pogrund. Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn is a gripping account of the tumultuous period between the General Election of 2017, when Corbyn pulled off a shock by robbing Theresa May of her majority, and defeat last year. For the book, Maguire and Pogrund managed to interview key figures inside Corbyn’s office who very rarely spoke publicly during their time in charge of the Labour party, understandably regarding most of the media with deep distrust.
The book also tells the story of what happened next, as The Project anointed a back-up candidate for the leadership - and lost. Rebecca Long-Bailey, the then 39-year-old MP for Salford and Eccles, was a favourite of John McDonnell, Corbyn’s shadow chancellor and oldest comrade. Like Pidcock, she had studied politics at MMU, before working as a solicitor at Hill Dickinson in Manchester.
Long-Bailey was good at policy detail and came across well on TV, but her CV lacked some of the left-wing heft of other Corbynites. She was a passionate advocate for the party’s expansive 2019 manifesto but it wasn’t immediately clear that she had spent her twenties attending anti-war demos or drafting open letters criticising Ariel Sharon’s visit to Temple Mount.
Nevertheless, The Project chose her as their candidate. And such was the grip they seemed to have over Labour, the assumption among most commentators was that The Project’s candidate would win. Corbyn enjoyed strong support among members and knowing the machinery of the party and its complex rulebook was what the Bennite left was traditionally good at. Many on the party’s right considered Labour lost for a generation - most notably Tony Blair.
“It was assumed that because the Labour membership kept voting for Jeremy Corbyn and candidates who supported him in internal elections, again, and again and again, that whoever was seen by the public or the media to be Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred successor would win,” Maguire told The Mill.
But the problems started for Long-Bailey even before she had decided to run. Keir Starmer, the suave former Director of Public Prosecutions and Labour’s shadow Brexit Secretary, had been more or less sidelined by the leadership during the election campaign, giving him weeks to hunker down in London, peering at surveys about what the Labour membership cared about.
By the time the election came and Corbyn’s future was decided, Starmer already had a sophisticated leadership campaign in place, with different groups working on challenges like getting union support and winning nominations from MPs. They had messages that appealed to members who were demoralised by the election but didn’t want to abandon the main thrust of the party’s economic policy.
In contrast, weeks after the election a spin doctor loyal to Corbyn offered his services to Long-Bailey’s campaign - only to find that it had no logo, no slogan and no real plan. In fact, the book reports that in the period after the election, Long-Bailey went on holiday. “Becky wasn’t really out of the traps as it were, and we were three, four weeks behind at the very beginning,” a supportive shadow cabinet member is quoted as saying. The book notes that Long-Bailey wasn’t a creature of Westminster, and preferred to be in Salford, far away from the drama and infighting of the political bubble.
As December wore on, she seemed to be a reluctant candidate, into whose lap the ball had unexpectedly fallen. “The question that people, including people on the left and people who voted for Rebecca Long-Bailey, asked was: does she really want it?” says Maguire. “Do you want to inherit The Project's mantle or not? And the answer may well have been ‘Not particularly.’”
Once she had declared her candidacy, Long-Bailey’s campaign was playing catch-up and she struggled to navigate the delicate balance between benefiting from Corbyn’s tacit endorsement and looking like a continuity candidate. If Labour had just been rejected wholesale by the electorate, didn’t the party need a fresh start? Asked in a TV interview to rate Corbyn out of ten, she gave him a ten rather than avoiding the question, sparking derision online. “She never really sort of shook off the impression that she was a wholly-owned subsidiary of John McDonnell,” says Maguire, who acknowledges the casual misogyny that goes into an assessment like that.
What did for Long-Bailey more than anything else was the dysfunction that had developed within the Corbyn world. The high of the 2017 election had been followed by a series of deeply damaging rows between power brokers around Corbyn over his responses to Brexit, the Sergei Skripal poisoning and anti-Semitism in the Labour party.
Based on dozens of interviews with Labour insiders, the book tells the story of how a rift opened up between Corbyn and McDonnell, the two central pillars of The Project who had spent decades campaigning as a pair from the backbenches but now went weeks without speaking. The unity required to plan ahead and ensure an orderly succession was missing when it was most needed.
“Yes, Rebecca long Bailey failed to plan. Yes, she made missteps during the campaign, but fundamentally, despite the good people on her campaign, that was because The Project had disintegrated by that point,” says Maguire. “A lot of the left-wing thinkers and crack campaigners had so tired of the dysfunctionality of the project they ended up on Keir Starmer’s side.”
Starmer won the leadership by a large margin and sacked Long-Bailey from his shadow cabinet team within months. Is she the person to lead The Project out of the wilderness? So far there’s little evidence she wants to be. The Labour left is divided over how to respond to Starmer - try to influence him from inside the tent or openly oppose his attempts to position the party as a moderate force in British politics again, moving to the right on issues like patriotism and culture. If he is successful in doing so, The Project may rue for some time its failure to secure the throne in the winter weeks after last year’s election.
Coming up: Patrick Maguire, co-author of Left Out: The Inside Story of Labour Under Corbyn, joined The Mill for the first-ever episode of our new podcast, which will go out to members next week. The interview contains fascinating details about what went wrong in The Project, who wielded power inside Corbyn’s office, and what the new-look Labour party means for Andy Burnham and his political future. To hear that interview and join our community, get your membership today with the early-bird 20% discount.