The race to become the next leader of the UK’s Labour party has yet to officially begin. But leftwing MPs are already battling for the mantle of the candidate most likely to protect Jeremy Corbyn’s legacy — despite the party’s catastrophic election defeat.
Mr Corbyn’s allies had pinned their hopes on Laura Pidcock, shadow employment minister until the December election, to continue the Corbyn project of strident socialism. But Ms Pidcock lost her seat, sparking tension over who was best placed to be the left’s candidate.
“It’s left a vacuum and they don’t know what to do,” said one shadow cabinet minister.
Corbyn supporters initially focused on Rebecca Long Bailey, shadow business secretary. A protégé of shadow chancellor John McDonnell, the 40-year-old has yet to formally declare her candidacy but outlined her likely platform in an article for the Guardian on Monday.
But her pitch of “progressive patriotism” has not been universally well received. One senior party figure described it as a “confection of nothingness”. Another official said the article — which has been in gestation for more than a week — confirmed Ms Long Bailey was “a reluctant leader and it seems people are realising that now”.
Others have raised concerns about whether Ms Long Bailey’s beliefs are truly aligned with Mr Corbyn’s. “She is the lobotomy candidate, a glove puppet — Becky wears her politics very lightly,” said one Labour party veteran.
Ms Long Bailey’s status as the left’s main candidate is under threat from Ian Lavery, the party chair who is close to Mr Corbyn. Mr Lavery’s spokesperson said he was “seriously considering” a leadership tilt, which could risk splitting the left’s support.
One Corbyn ally said the influence of the powerful Unite trade union was behind Mr Lavery’s decision to challenge Ms Long Bailey.
“I think that Unite — specifically [leader] Len McCluskey and [Corbyn ally] Karie Murphy — are disaffected with Becky for some reason and they are encouraging Ian Lavery to run. From their point of view, the beauty of Ian is Corbynism without Corbyn. But I don’t see him appealing to voters in London and the cities or university towns.”
One official predicted that an attempt by Mr Lavery was unlikely to make much headway. “Ian Lavery is keeping options open in the same way I am keeping my options open for Sienna Miller,” the insider said, referring to the actress. “He will know he doesn’t have the number of MPs or constituency Labour parties to make it work.”
The other candidate in contention for the left’s support is Clive Lewis, a junior shadow Treasury minister who is standing on a platform of further democratising the party. Once part of the leader’s inner circle, he is likely to gain support from some prominent Corbyn supporters. However, he is no longer close to Mr Corbyn’s team.
However, one MP said he could be the “dark horse” of the contest if Ms Long Bailey and Mr Lavery struggled to make headway.
The party is set to announce the rules of the race on January 6 but it is expected that candidates will need the support of 21 of the party’s 203 MPs, plus support from local parties or trade unions, to run. The half a million party members will select the leader by ranking their preferences. The winner should be known by the end of March.
The other notable contender who has yet to formally declare their intentions is Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary. Although a passionate Remainer, he has remained loyal to Mr Corbyn and is popular with members. According to the Labour List website, he is currently the second favourite after Ms Long Bailey.
One Corbyn supporter said he could be acceptable to the left. “I wouldn’t moan if Starmer got it. I think he would stop the bleeding for a bit — like Neil Kinnock,” a reference to the Labour leader who rebuilt the party’s standing after its similarly major defeat in the 1983 election.
But other Labour figures think Sir Keir would struggle to reconnect with voters in the Midlands and north of England, where Mr Corbyn lost dozens of seats. “Keir most looks the part, yet there is a risk he looks like continuity Ed Miliband. We need a bit more northern grit,” said one grandee.
Ironically, the incumbent is perhaps still the most popular figure in the party. “Despite everything, despite the election, if he ran again the [members] would absolutely vote for him — many are still disappointed he is standing down,” one shadow minister said.
Whoever succeeds is therefore likely to be the candidate who most successfully channels Mr Corbyn. One of his allies said: “I would say the members would back the most Corbynistic of the candidates. Until we know everyone who has declared and made their pitch, we don’t know who that is.”