Insider Gossip from Westminster About the Labour Leadership Race

"Predictably, people are arguing about who has or hasn’t got an Aga and whose dad is more working-class like they’re going to have a fight in the school playground."
January 16, 2020, 11:09am
Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long Bailey
Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long Bailey leaving the Cabinet Office in April 2019 after Brexit talks. Photo by Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images

Commons Confessions is a column by political journalist and author Marie Le Conte. Keep reading for more anonymous insight into British politics from those in the know.

Welcome back! Hope you enjoyed your winter break and the relative calm of early January because the Labour leadership contest has officially started, and will now continue for over two and a half months. Fun! YAY! And so on.

To celebrate the first proper week of it, we went around Westminster asking Labour MPs, staffers and concerned parties to tell us what they make of it so far – all anonymously, of course. Oh, and we chatted to a few Tories as well, to see what they think of what their opponents are up to.

THE GENERAL MOOD

“Honestly I think – even though it’s early days – it’s exhausting already. Predictably, people are arguing about who has or hasn’t got an Aga and whose dad is more working-class like they’re going to have a fight in the school playground, and if that continues then Labour’s going to find itself in the same position for the next 10 years.”

“There is a very justifiably wary mood amongst staff from the left of the party that a future leader will not waste any time purging them, their colleagues and their ideas from the party. That’s contributing to low staff morale all round.”

“It's completely underwhelming. It's very hard to be excited about it.”

“Beyond the fact it's depressing that the choice of leader will be between four women and one man and everyone thinks the man is going to walk it, I'm not sure there's really much to say.”

“The mood is pretty downbeat. I don’t get the sense many MPs are really excited about any candidate, but maybe that is because they have just been thumped at the ballot box and heard just how toxic the Labour brand is in some parts of the country. There aren’t many Labour MPs who think Keir or Rebecca Long Bailey [RLB] is the answer to their prayers. We aren’t at the debate stage yet so I’m hoping it will get more interesting. It’s all been pretty cautious thus far.”

“There’s a cheery optimism from Labour people that doesn't quite reach the eyes…”

THE CONTEST

“I’m pretty surprised [Richard] Burgon made it through on deputy leadership in the end, and a bit sick of all this 'it should be someone from the North' chat. I don’t think that’s the case, but it does need to be someone who understands the issues in those heartland areas they lost, and releasing hustings locations without places like Yorkshire, east Midlands, south east and east of England included was a poor show. Even if it’s true that there were always going to be events there and venues just haven’t been found yet – which I highly doubt – why not put the region and TBC on the list?”

“The Labour leadership contest hasn’t exactly taken off up here in Scotland – outside of [Labour deputy leader candidate] Ian Murray’s office, at least – with Scottish Labour tying themselves in knots with their approach to independence.”

“It’s surprising given the polls suggested a contest was coming, but the candidates genuinely seem unprepared. Christmas meant Christmas holidays and it is only in the last week I’ve started to hear from the various contenders.”

“The contest has been surprisingly good-natured so far. Keir obviously had a ready-made pre-assembled campaign team so was very much first off the starting block, but the other candidates have pulled themselves together quickly enough.”

THE CANDIDATES

“I was surprised that Clive [Lewis] withdrew so that his nominations could back Emily [Thornberry] – which seems like a sign that Brexit will continue to make strange political bedfellows for a long time to come!”

“I'm really enjoying the male Twitter warriors trying to find a euphemism to explain why they like Keir Starmer that doesn't explicitly say 'he's a man' – 'most credible' 'most professional', and all that.”

“Something's been overlooked about Corbyn in 2015: he was exciting not just because he was saying left-wing things but because he was genuinely part of the movement. We'd all been on demos with Corbyn and McDonnell – even tiny ones where they'd get no recognition or reward. You can't say that about any of these candidates. RLB's left credentials come entirely from her work in Parliament, which is good as far as it goes but it's not the same. Starmer has tried to replicate this with his emphasis on the work he did before becoming an MP – McLibel and opposing ID cards etc – but he's still quite bland.”

“It’s surprising how disorganised the Corbyn left has been. No one thought Keir would do quite so well or RLB would be quite so slow off the mark. I haven’t actually been that surprised by [Lisa] Nandy’s success – she has always done lots of media and is comfortable with it and pretty articulate. Emily Thornberry only scraping through was a surprise, but she had always been quite marmite among her colleagues.”

“I think Rebecca Long Bailey looks like she is there against her will, and that Angela Rayner has played an absolute blinder by staying out of this nonsense and will probably be the next Labour prime minister.”

“I’m surprised Keir has become such a runaway favourite with MPs, with early union support. It probably speaks to the fact that the whole RLB operation has been very, very slow to get off the ground. I feel like with deputy leadership stuff it’s seen as much more of a done deal early on, whereas the leadership is much more open.”

THE TORY VIEW

“Overall they’ve lived down to my expectations, in the sense that there is very little sign of any properly harsh reflection on what went wrong. But there are good and bad points in the mix. I’m pleasantly surprised they haven’t just trooped obediently into line behind Long Bailey as the approved Corbyn 2.0. But I’m also amazed that the supposedly viable alternative is Keir Starmer, the guy who personally pushed through a Brexit policy that pleased literally nobody. Which of their lost seats do Labour think would have voted a different way if they’d been led by a more Remain-y London lawyer?”

“I’d have put Rayner up for the leadership instead of the deputy job, she’d give the government more trouble than any of the sorry bunch on offer at the minute.”

“Angela Rayner was who we were really scared of, the internal polling we were rumoured to have done apparently had her as a big winner in our newfound heartlands. The others, I suspect, are too normal and well-liked with the national electorate to satisfy the trots in the Labour electorate. Which is a shame because Lisa Nandy would probably be the best of the lot."

@youngvulgarian