Rebecca Long-Bailey

Rebecca Long-Bailey Wants You to Know 'Socialism Is Aspiration'

The Labour leadership contender talks to VICE about her unlikely route to politics and why the government is failing to act on coronavirus.
March 23, 2020, 9:00am

I meet Rebecca Long-Bailey in a coffee shop in Finsbury Park, on her own. An aide was meant to join us, but he was possibly exposed to coronavirus. The cafe is empty, and the owner brings us our coffees with a grateful smile. When I’d met her leadership rival Keir Starmer a week-and-a-half ago, coronavirus had been a background rumble. Now, Long-Bailey and I wave at each other in greeting. This is no regular interview.

“There are a set of policies that need to be put into place as quickly as possible to provide support to businesses and workers, particularly the self-employed, and those who might lose their jobs because of this,” says Long-Bailey. She’s deeply concerned, and believes the government needs to scrap the five-week waiting time before you can claim Universal Credit.

The Labour leadership race has a new urgency. “It’s been a long contest,” Long-Bailey says. “Now we are in the middle of a crisis, and we need leadership. Jeremy and John [McDonnell] are stepping up to the plate, but without the firming up of what is going to happen next in the party, we’re not on the strongest footing we could be. That’s why we need to get this done as quickly as possible.”

We’re not meeting under normal circumstances, so it’s hard to know what Long-Bailey would be like ordinarily. Sincere, I think. Conscientious. She doesn’t have the mega-watt charm of Lisa Nandy or the brisk efficiency of Keir Starmer, but Long-Bailey seems the most scrupulous out of all the candidates. It’s always been clear what her values are. “Everyone knows where they’re up to with me, because they know I supported Jeremy for so long and where my politics lie, and they understand what I’ll do policy-wise,” Long-Bailey, 40, says. “I think with other candidates there’s not been that clarity.”

It’s an oblique swipe at her rivals, but not undeserved. For all that Starmer and Nandy have positioned themselves as the candidates of unity and change respectively, it’s not always clear what their agendas would be if they won. Starmer is universally perceived as a centrist at heart, even if he claims to be a socialist. Meanwhile, Nandy talks of radical transformation, but her policy platform is ill-defined.

Rebecca Long-Bailey at a Labour hustings

Rebecca Long-Bailey takes questions at a Labour hustings. Photo: Alan Keith Beastall / Alamy Stock Photo

You know what you get with Long-Bailey: she is the anointed heir to the Momentum project, even if the phrase “continuity Corbyn” makes her baulk. “It drives me mad,” says Long-Bailey of the moniker. “I love Jeremy. We’re friends and I’ve supported Jeremy from the start, and he believes the same things that I believe in. But I’m very different… It’s about making sure that our members understand that when we talk about Corbynism, we don’t really mean Corbynism, we mean socialism.”

Truth be told, it was never meant to be Long-Bailey. Laura Pidcock was the Momentum-backed successor, only she lost her seat in 2019. As recently as January, many believed that Angela Rayner would run for leader. When Rayner announced she’d stand as Long-Bailey’s deputy on an unofficial ticket, micro-ripples of shock went through the party. “I had to think long and hard about whether I was the right person to do it, and whether my family could take it,” Long-Bailey says. “Because I saw what happened to Jeremy over the last four years and no-one in their right mind would do this because they thought it was enjoyable or out of a thirst for power.”

From apolitical solicitor to leadership hopeful in scarcely a decade: it’s a remarkable story. Unlike Starmer, who joined the party at 16, and Nandy, who worked for Labour MP Neil Gerrard fresh out of uni, Long-Bailey is a relative political ingenue, only joining the Labour party a decade ago. She did grow up in a political household: her dad was a docker and a trade union representative. She listened to his struggles at work, but the thought of becoming an MP was inconceivable: “I thought those things are always going to be stitched up for someone else.”

After graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University, Long-Bailey became an admin assistant at a Manchester law firm. Without a Russell Group degree, she knew her chances of becoming a lawyer were slim: nearly all the training contracts went to Oxbridge graduates. But she impressed a partner at the firm with her work ethic. He promoted her to paralegal, then solicitor. “I’d never have got to where I’ve got without him,” she says. “I probably wouldn’t even have been in law.”

By her thirties, this docker’s daughter had a job at a prestigious law firm and a big house in an affluent Manchester suburb. But there was a growing discontent. “[I became] angrier about inequality, because I saw that I’d done very well in life, but it had all happened by accident,” Long-Bailey says. “Of course I’d worked hard, but I was in the right place at the right time a lot of the time, and that’s where I’d got my lucky breaks. That hadn’t happened to a lot of the people I grew up with, who were no less clever than I was.”

Rebecca Long Bailey

Long-Bailey: "The whole point is that I want everyone to do as well as I did."

Her political awakening came gradually, and then all at once. “I kind of snapped, I suppose,” Long-Bailey says. “I never thought I’d get involved in politics to the extent that I did, even before I thought about becoming an MP. I’d been angry for a long time, but I’d never got involved in the Labour party.” In 2010, Long-Bailey took her mother to a constituency meeting in Weaver Vale. “When my mum had made some friends I was going to leave her to it, because I never really saw myself getting directly involved,” Long-Bailey says. “I wanted to be a member of the party, but not really do much, because I was quite busy at work.”

At the meeting, someone suggested means-testing for hospital meals. “I could feel the rage building up inside of me,” Long-Bailey says. “I was driving home that night and I said to my mum, ‘Look, I know I said I was going to leave you to it, but unless I get directly involved in sorting things out, we’re never going to have a Labour party that’s capable of winning ever again.”

In 2015, just five years after joining the party, Long-Bailey was elected MP for Salford and Eccles. The same year, Corbyn appointed her as Shadow Minister for the Treasury. By 2017, she was the Shadow Secretary of State for Business.

Although Long-Bailey positions herself as a sort of accidental frontbencher, she is a talented political performer. She was impressive when called to deputise for Corbyn during PMQs; her speech was a highlight of Labour’s 2019 conference. Many thought Long-Bailey would walk the leadership contest. But her campaign got off to a faltering start, whilst Starmer jumped in with a well-received Guardian profile.

“Some people were quick off the mark,” says Long-Bailey dryly. “We were all having our period of reflection, and others weren’t reflecting that much.”

Although she has the support of Unite and the CWU, Starmer did better than expected in getting CLPs to support him, and Long-Bailey’s campaign launch fell flat. A bungled interview in which Long-Bailey was goaded by an ITV interviewer into giving Corbyn – who’d presided over the worst Labour election defeat since 1935 – ten out of ten as leader was a huge setback. “Sometimes, the questions you are asked – every interview is like an assault course,” Long-Bailey reflects.

She has become noticeably warier in her interactions with the press. It’s hard to blame her: the tenor of most coverage has been hostile. Long-Bailey has been criticised for living in a “posh village,” being married to a marketing boss, for allegedly misrepresenting her father’s employment history and for not being a real socialist because she had a successful corporate career. (“That drives me around the bend,” she says. “To be a socialist you have to live in a shoebox and eat berries off the ground? For God’s sake. The whole point is that I want everyone to do as well as I did.”)

A Buzzfeed investigation which found that Long-Bailey had worked on PFI contracts whilst acting as a solicitor for NHS trusts was especially damaging: Long-Bailey had long spoken out against the dangers of creeping NHS privatisation. She tells me that it was the experience of working on these contracts pushed her to have more radical beliefs: “[At that time] if you were working on any piece of work to do with a newly built hospital or health centre, would have been done on PFI…[I] saw how insidious these PFI deals were, and that’s where I learned about them really, and that made me angry.”

Rebecca Long Bailey

Long-Bailey: "[Socialism is] about realising your aspirations… It’s not a case of saving people."

Her friendship with Rayner – when they are in London, they share a flat – is a sort of Blair-Brown alliance for the Momentum generation. Do they ever just kick it in front of Netflix? “On occasion we watch TV together,” Long-Bailey says, “but most of the time we rant at each other about whatever’s been going on, and then get into bed.”

In the summer of 2019, Rayner and Long-Bailey went glamping in the Lake District. It was there, over a couple of drinks – vodka for Rayner, and gin for Long-Bailey – they decided they’d be willing to throw their hats into the ring, if the time ever came. “Angela said, ‘If it all goes wrong, it’s only me and you, we’re going to have to figure out how we sort this out… We were both just like, ‘yep, agree! It’s only me and you with any sense.’’”

Long-Bailey’s critics say that a far-left policy agenda isn’t electable: that if she wins the leadership race, Labour will be out of government for a generation. Isn’t Britain basically a moderate nation, I ask? “The policies we had in our manifesto weren’t actually that radical… They were radical compared to where the Conservative government was,” she insists, “but in terms of what other European countries were doing, they were normal, moderate policies.” I’m not convinced. If the events of the last four years have taught us anything, it’s that Britain doesn’t want European-style policies – or anything to do with Europe, actually.

If elected, Long-Bailey would adopt the ruthless message discipline that wins elections, not the inchoate mess that was Labour’s 2019 manifesto. “We didn’t have any messaging,” sighs Long-Bailey. “That was the problem. Our tagline was ‘Real Change’, and that didn’t mean anything to anyone… I’d get our messaging sorted very early on, so we could start hammering that home, and make sure that there’s a theme running through the next four years.”

Another reason former Labour voters absconded to the Tories in 2019 is because, rightly or wrongly, the Tories defined themselves as the party of aspiration. Labour banged the drum for abolishing zero-hours contracts but were criticised for viewing those on low incomes as victims, when that wasn’t necessarily how they saw themselves. “That’s why I’ve talked a lot about aspiration in this campaign, and trying to link it to socialism,” says Long-Bailey. “Because socialism is aspiration. It’s about realising your aspirations… It’s not a case of saving people. It’s a case of just making sure their quality of life improves year-on-year.”

Rebecca Long-Bailey has a message, and a vision. Whether anyone will let her tell it remains to be seen.

Read our profiles of Keir Starmer here and Lisa Nandy here.

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