Who will be the next Labour leader? I think I already know

John Rentoul
Labour's Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey exit cross-party Brexit talks: Getty

What will happen next to the Labour Party is one of the big questions beneath the surface of this election. If the Conservatives lose seven seats on Thursday, that creates one set of problems for Jeremy Corbyn: how to put together an administration that the Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats would allow to govern?

The more likely problem he will face is: should he resign now or later? If Boris Johnson wins a majority, Corbyn would probably want to stand down immediately. But the question for him and the clique around him is: how best to ensure the succession of a candidate who will continue their mission?

It could be that an early leadership election would capitalise on the determination of Labour members to double their bet on what they see as real socialism. After the SNP lost the 2014 Scottish referendum, its members became radicalised and enthused, just as Remainers did after losing the 2016 EU vote.

But parties respond differently to election defeats: Labour lurched towards the centre in 1983, but away from it in 2015, and treated 2017 as a moral victory requiring one more heave.

Or it may be that Corbyn wants to give the candidates from among his own supporters time to establish themselves. His ally Len McCluskey, leader of the biggest union affiliated to the party, suggested this week that Corbyn should stay on. He said Ed Miliband was wrong to resign straight away after the 2015 election, “because you need to look at what has happened in an election; you need to look at the results – there should be a period of reflection is so that there’s not a knee jerk reaction to blame A B C D or E.”

We can guess what some of those letters might stand for: the media, the Blairites or the party’s stance on Brexit. But the extent to which Labour members recognise that Corbyn was part of the problem is hard to judge.

It was interesting that Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, was tempted into discussing the reasons for the party’s possible defeat in an interview today with Paul Waugh of Huffington Post: “I don’t think it’s because we’re too socialist, and I don’t think it’s because we’re not socialist enough.”

It seems likely that Labour members would respond to defeat by saying the policies were right but the presentation was poor. So they will be looking for someone who could sell essentially the same prospectus but with more verve and attack. Much as they admire Corbyn’s refusal to engage in personal attacks, such an assault was precisely what they thought was needed in Friday’s TV debate.

That is why I find it puzzling that Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, is currently the favourite as next Labour leader at the bookies. The way he fought Brexit has earned him huge respect (although if Labour wanted a soft Brexit they should have voted for Theresa May’s deal – all Starmer’s lawyerly obstruction is likely to achieve is a hard Brexit with Boris Johnson as prime minister). But he is not a “core group” Corbynite. And, in a party embarrassed about its failure ever to elect a female leader, as he said to Andrew Marr recently, “I’m clearly not a woman, and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.”

The central figure in leadership speculation is the second favourite, Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary. She has been John McDonnell’s favoured candidate, but not so explicitly Corbyn’s. I suspect there are tensions in the inner circles that we don’t know about.

There is the question, too, of her friendship with Rayner, her flatmate: they are the Blair and Brown, the David and Ed, the latest partnership destined to be broken by Labour history.

Long-Bailey did well in her audition in the seven-way TV debate early in the campaign; better than Richard Burgon, the other Corbyn loyalist put up in last week’s debate. But she still comes across as heavily scripted.

There will be other candidates. I suspect nothing can stop Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, from standing. Laura Pidcock, the fiery new MP, aged 32, might be an alternative loyalist – although she might well lose her seat in North West Durham next week.

A lot would depend on how the candidates perform over the next few days, but machine politics could be decisive. The factions that control the big trade unions are important, as is Labour’s National Executive Committee, which will decide the rules for the contest.

It will be the NEC, on which Corbyn supporters have a majority, that will decide, for example, if it should appoint an acting deputy leader to fill the vacancy left by Tom Watson. The NEC would decide the fee for registered supporters who could vote in the leadership election, and the qualification period for eligibility.

I suspect that Corbyn will announce that he will step down some time well into next year, and that in the meantime he and Starmer will lead Labour’s opposition to the EU Withdrawal Bill. He might, if McDonnell decided to stand down, appoint Long-Bailey as shadow chancellor in his place.

Then, assuming the UK leaves the EU on 31 January, politics will move on, however much we all know that “get Brexit done” is a simplistic slogan. Starmer and Thornberry are not going to fall into the trap of advocating rejoining the EU, and the Labour debate will instantly switch to arguing how best to achieve socialism in one country.

Anything can happen, as Corbyn’s supporters know best, but Rebecca Long-Bailey is in the lead at the moment.

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