By Nick Clark
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Leadership race will pull Labour to the right

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Issue 2686
Labour leadership hopefuls Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Jess Phillips
Labour leadership hopefuls Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Jess Phillips (Pics: House of Commons)

The coming election to replace Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader will set the stage to drag the party to the right.

The basis for the whole debate is an acceptance that Labour lost because voters in what were considered its traditional heartlands are mostly right wing.

Every candidate in some way or other looks set to adapt to right wing ideas—or adopt them wholesale.

The right’s favourite candidate is Jess Phillips.

She made a name for herself as an “outspoken” Labour MP for attacking Corbyn’s leadership at every turn. This included bragging that she once told Corbyn’s ally Diane Abbott to “fuck off”—though Abbott claims Phillips made this up.

Phillips says her leadership bid is all about “speaking truth” in “a language that demonstrates we see the world as ordinary people do and we share their anger at the things they see that are wrong”.

She hasn’t said what this actually means.

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For some of her supporters, this is little more than a belief that ordinary people will be taken in by her regional accent. It almost certainly means right wing policies on racism, police and strikes.

In a chummy 2015 interview with Guardian columnist Owen Jones, Phillips said terror suspects should be shot in the head “ten times”. She also once boasted on Twitter that she called the police on travellers who had arrived in her constituency.

And she condemned Birmingham teachers for striking in defence of their sacked union rep Simon O’Hara in 2016.

In a similar vein, Wigan MP Lisa Nandy wants to lead Labour with a focus on towns and local issues.

This apparently means dropping some of Labour’s more ambitious policies such as free broadband, which she counterposes with issues such as poor local bus services. Localism is also often the basis for anti-migrant policies.

Nandy once wrote that she wants “communities” to make decisions on where migrants are housed.

Shadow international development secretary Emily Thornberry promises to lead an assault on the left if elected.

She said Labour members accused of antisemitism—which could mean calling Israel a racist or apartheid state—should be expelled immediately.

Some of the left back Clive Lewis—or even Keir Starmer—for leadership. Both are champions of the European Union and campaigned for Labour to oppose Brexit.

Given that Labour lost the election because it was seen to oppose Brexit, their leadership would be a disaster.

Others on the left want either party chair Ian Lavery or shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey to be Corbyn’s successor.

Yet even Long Bailey is set to make concessions to the right with plans for a “progressive patriotism”. She backed the expulsion of Chris Williamson from Labour.

Lavery’s supporters back him mostly because he backs Brexit and also has a regional accent.

Neither of these candidates offer a bright future for the left in the Labour Party.

Canvassing for Labour during the general election
Canvassing for Labour during the general election (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Labour activists must look beyond the doorstep to achieve real change

After Labour’s defeat in the general election last year, many of the activists who flocked to campaign for its left wing vision are looking at what to do next.

For many, the obvious answer is to dust themselves off and dig in for the long game.

This means campaigning for a left wing candidate to replace Jeremy Corbyn as leader, and continue fighting for control against the right inside the party.

It also means canvassing and leafleting for Labour’s candidates in the coming local council elections set to be held on 7 May in England.

Yet the lesson of the 2019 general election is that committed and well-organised canvassing on its own is no guarantee of success.

During the election campaign the left focussed on mobilising canvassers to key seats, and presenting left wing policies in a polished and professional manner.

But this wasn’t enough to believe in the transformation that a Corbyn government promised.

One crucial reason for this is that for years there has been little in the way of resistance to Tory austerity. There have been very few strikes or even mass demonstrations.

Labour’s focus on parliament as the most important way to change society turns its focus towards electioneering and away from building vital struggle.

Even worse, it allows union leaders to delay or hold off from organising strikes in the hope that a Labour government is just around the corner.

In the coming local elections, canvassing for Labour will be even harder. Campaigners will have to tell people who’ve suffered under austerity implemented by Labour councils to vote for Labour candidates.

The best way activists can fight the Tories now is by looking for opportunities to resist austerity through strikes and protests at every council—whoever runs them. And to do that we must look outside the Labour party.

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