The race to replace Jeremy Corbyn: What we learned from the Labour leadership hustings

After a fraught five year period of in-fighting during the tenure of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, calls for unity within the Labour Party are very much borne out of necessity.

It was no accident, therefore, that just a matter of minutes into proceedings during the first Labour Leadership hustings of the upcoming election, that across the board there was agreement in this regard.

There seemed to be a different atmosphere down at ACC Liverpool at the first in a line of hustings which will take place before the next Labour leader is announced on April 4th. In truth, anyone present at the event will have perhaps sensed all five candidates were on their best behaviour.

The job of a politician means this requires more than simply keeping one’s head down and reservedly working away. And so, to call any of the politicians who took the the stage as in any way withdrawn would be wide of the mark.

This said, it appeared that the five who took to the stage in Liverpool today, on this showing at least, seemed sincere in their respective instance that in-fighting would become a thing of the past during the next four years.

It’s early days but, promisingly, a long-overdue truce appears to have been called.

In a room graced with the presence of the affable and, admittedly, personable Jess Phillips as well as the self-proclaimed “battle-axe” Emily Thornberry, it would appear things were as they always were in politics.

There is no doubt that personalities such as these are a clear asset to the party and it should be on the agenda of whomever eventually takes the reigns of the Labour Party that each of those who took to the stage today are given roles on the frontline as they “look to take the fight to Boris Johnson” as Thornberry aptly put it.

In times gone by, we wouldn’t have had it any other way. Not to say this diminishes the merits of either Phillips or Thornberry, in any sense.

It just appears as though, amidst the chaos of a decade where politics in Britain has lurched further towards right-wing sloganeering populism, out of nowhere, the need for calm to cut through the frenzied commotion that will undoubtedly beset the next four years of Johnson’s premiership, couldn’t be more essential.

Leadership hopeful Rebecca Long-Bailey may well admit herself that the past couple of weeks for her have been decidedly rocky. Her comments regarding the leadership of outgoing leader Jeremy Corbyn were viewed as particularly misplaced considering the smear campaigns that dogged the latter’s tenure at the helm.

However, her calmness and assuredness is a characteristic that is immediately striking and, ironically, could actually become the most potent weapon in Labour’s armoury.

In short, to those present, her character seemed to transcend the room.

Questions regarding her suitability for the top job abounded prior to entering the stage at the Liverpool ACC, however, by the end of the hour and a half of hustings, it was clear that those present may have just witnessed the birth of something transformative.

It is true, Long-Bailey is very much a different kind of politician and, frankly, these are very different times to the days of Blair and Thatcher. One theme of the hustings seemed to be the irritation questions regarding identity seemed to be met with.

The Salford-native, seemed the least irked, however. Rather, she seemed to embrace the fact that her upbringing in a politicised working-class Northern family still informs her actions as a frontline politician, vying to lead the Labour Party from its worst slumber since before the Second World War.

These are choppy, uncharted waters for the UK and it became clear as the hustings drew to a close that Long-Bailey’s calm, yet assured presence, just as it had during this first debate of the leadership election, may well represent the groundbreaking change that the party so desperately needs.

Long-Bailey is proud of her Northern roots- and so she should be. However, any murmurs that she is somehow a token politician serving the sole purpose of winning back the Red Wall seats Labour lost at last month’s General Election are as misplaced as they are patronising.

Already, within hours of taking to the stage, she has been labelled a “Corbynista” by the Daily Mail.

It appears a narrative is already forming and her policies will do little to dampen these assertions. It is clear that, as she insisted herself several times during proceedings, despite Labour’s obliteration at the last election, she still has belief in the democratic socialist model that paid dividends for Corbyn at the 2017 General Election but produced extremely concerning results at the subsequent election two years later.

On this showing, Long-Bailey- as figures such as John McDonnell and Angela Rayner have long insisted- is the real deal, Northern or not. Her vows to instigate devolution from London and to democratize power and wealth to the de-industrialized regions of the UK that have felt left behind under successive governments, including under New Labour, are a sincere effort to install radical changes in a country that is currently, perhaps fatally, divided.

Identifying the Westminster elites that currently still reside in Number 10 as the key battle for the next four years for Labour is a cannier move than she will perhaps receive credit for. There has been a lot of pious finger-pointing towards northern Leave voters following the 2016 EU referendum without any real discernible efforts to find out the real reasons behind the shock result.

It is difficult, practically speaking to find any convincing arguments against decentralising wealth and power away from Westminster. The country is currently clearly at odds with itself and the failure of successive governments to so much as listen to the concerns of those outside of London created a political Frankenstein for the ages in the form of Brexit.

Make no mistake, Long-Bailey will undoubtedly receive criticism from parts of the press who stand to lose out from devolving power from London but there is very little cynicism to be found in her protestations- clearly, her upbringing in the de-industrialised regions left behind by the brutality of Thatcher’s ‘Enterprise Britain’ fuels her distrust of Westminster.

In truth, this is the same distrust I felt growing up in Liverpool. It exists. If Westminster fails to recognise this, it will continue on its current path towards isolation. The term for Britain’s island nation status in the history books is ‘splendid isolationism’, however, it is unlikely that the country’s removal from the EU will be anything of the kind in this age of globalisation.

Britain will leave the EU at the end of this month, regardless of whether myself or other Remainers like it. If Westminster does not wake up to affairs north of the Watford Gap, however, it is self-evident that isolation from Europe may well hit the very voters who opted to leave the EU end up more short-changed out of this decidedly sorry mess than anyone, if current forecasts are to be believed.

Her main competition in her quest to become Labour’s next leader is realistically expected to come in the form of Keir Starmer. A former QC and an admired politician across the board in British politics, he came into the hustings on Liverpool’s waterfront as the early frontrunner. In truth, Starmer has many attractions and if he is to win, it would be wrong to earmark him as an unworthy victor in any sense.

Labour members must consider above all else, however, the simple fact that Britain is an overwhelmingly different place than what it was a decade ago. If Starmer appeared- regardless of his credentials- like yesterday’s man at today’s hustings, Long-Bailey had little issues in this regard.

Concerns are not misplaced when it comes to her performance in facing the press over the last two weeks and her inability to distance herself from Labour’s ultimately futile Corbyn-era may already sound a death-knell on her campaign just a day after its launch.

If she can turn the tide on this perception it will be the biggest triumph thus far in what looks to be, perhaps, the most promising career of any current serving British politician.

One just hopes Rebecca Long-Bailey’s leadership tilt, if it is to prove unsuccessful, doesn’t prove to become an almighty missed opportunity for reform.

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