Claiming Corbyn’s crown
Paul Richards investigates who will be Jeremy Corbyn’s successor as the hard-left’s anointed leadership candidate
One thing you can guarantee, like rain on a bank holiday, is splits on the hard-left. The old Monty Python joke is funny because it is true. For the all the calls for workers’ unity, disunity is the stock-in-trade. The Trotskyist parties are all fragments of one another. The vanity parties such as Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour party, George Galloway’s Respect or Ken Loach’s Left Unity are all the products of splits, which have themselves split.
The hard-left within the Labour party is equally riven. So it is no surprise that the coalition of forces and individuals which supported Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 is now rapidly disintegrating. Some say it is because of his poor performance following the heightened expectations of that heady summer. You might think the widening schisms amongst Corbynites are linked to his dismal personal ratings as the most unpopular leader ever, net loss of council seats, inability to appoint a functioning frontbench or the growing Tory lead in the opinion polls.
But they are not. Splits, schisms and sects, swirling in a morass of accusation, suspicion and mutual loathing. This is just another day at the office for the hard-left’s leading lights. So as the court of Corbyn senses his reign is drawing to an inglorious close, who wants to wear the crown?
Remember those posh kids who discover socialism and sell papers outside Tesco? Think Rik Mayall as Rick in the Young Ones. Richard Burgon is that kid. Educated in the leafy suburbs of Harrogate, followed by St John’s College Cambridge, where he studied English Literature, he went on to become a solicitor. Burgon adopted a leftwing persona as a teen, and has never grown out of it.
In his diary on 15 July 1999, Tony Benn recorded: ‘On the terrace, I had a chat to Richard Burgon who is the nephew of Colin Burgon the [member of parliament] for Elmet just outside Leeds. He was a young lad of about 16 or so, a good socialist, had written a thesis on “Tony Benn’s influence on the Labour party” and had on a T-shirt which said “socialism is the flame of anger and the flame of hope”. He had had it specially made.’ His Bennite credentials are strengthened by a longstanding Euroscepticism – to the point where colleagues believe he wanted to campaign for ‘Leave’ last year, but kept his head low.
Once elected in 2015 (following a helpful phonecall from uncle Colin to Ed Miliband ahead of the selection process, denying Leeds a second all-women shortlist), the T-shirt wearing, placard waving student protestor has become a T-shirt wearing, placard waving MP. Feel the Burgon.
Angela Rayner is an extremely rare type of Corbynista. For while most are posh, university-educated and read the Guardian, Rayner is the diametric opposite. Born on a Stockport council estate, she left school at 16 and was a teenage mother. She is the first shadow education secretary to have left school without any qualifications.
Like many of the pioneer Labour MPs after 1900, Rayner was offered a ladder by the trade union movement. Her real education came not in the school room, but in the union branch. She lives and breathes trade unionism as a Unison senior steward and not, like most Corbynite MPs, in the research department or as solicitors.
As a northern working-class trade unionist, she has managed to land blows on the Tories who are not quite sure how to react. She was promoted twice in a week, ending up in her current role. At her first outing Rayner wrong-footed the Tories over grammar schools by quoting their own words back at them.
Rayner was a direct beneficiary of the Tony Blair-led Labour government, especially sure start, and understands more than most why we need a Labour government. Her thirst for power is political not personal. Oh, and she likes Star Wars.
Rebecca Long-Bailey was a solicitor from Cheshire. She came third in the Labour selection in her home constituency of Weaver Vale. But then, with a little help from Unite, she won the Salford and Eccles nomination and was elected in 2015. She enthusiastically signed Corbyn’s nomination papers and has prospered under his leadership, earning herself a place as one of the leader’s disciples on the National Executive Committee.
Her frontbench career was unimpaired by a series of uncertain early performances on television, notably being duffed up by Andrew Neil over Brexit. She learned economics on the job, as shadow chief secretary to the treasury, with the same diligence that earned her her sociology degree from Manchester Polytechnic. Now she is shadow business secretary, replacing the MP for Norwich South.
In September last year, she wrote in the Guardian ‘I have watched Labour’s leader inspire a new mass movement and force the Tories into retreat.’ She is right. Corbyn has inspired a new mass movement of Tory voters, and the Tories have retreated into the safety of assured victory at the next election.
‘Becky’ is a protégée of John McDonnell. He tweeted on 3 February 2017: ‘Rebecca Long-Bailey was brilliant on BBC Question Time with convincing common sense answers. Next generation of our socialist leadership team emerging.’ Has ever a coded endorsement been less coded? It is hardly the Enigma is it?
We know Clive Lewis has no interest whatsoever in becoming leader of the Labour party because of all the national media interviews he has given. We know that his friend Owen Jones is definitely not his campaign manager, nor has he phoned any MPs. We know ‘Clive for leader’ websites have been registered, but we do not know who registered them, or why.
But let us pretend for a minute that Lewis is plotting a bid. He has a rich back story. Not rich as in wealthy, like Corbyn, but rich as in fascinating. He grew up on a council estate as the son of a single father. As a student unionist he stood against the Labour candidate for National Union of Students president in 1996. He joined the BBC as a reporter, and the territorial army as a second-lieutenant in the 7th Rifles. In the summer of 2009, he served for three months in Afghanistan. In 2011, he made a brave film for BBC Inside East about his mental illness following his tour, highlighting the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder on returning soldiers.
By resigning over article 50, Lewis identified the perfect faultline between the old Bennite anti-Europe brigade, and the younger pro-Europeans. His support for proportional representation and the ‘progressive alliance’ might swing a few of the soft-left in his direction, should the unthinkable happen and he run for leader.
John McDonnell wants to be leader of the Labour party. He stood in 2007, when Blair stood down. Labour had 355 MPs, so McDonnell needed 45 nominations to get on the ballot. He failed. In 2010, he needed only 35 nominations from a much-reduced parliamentary Labour party, but secured less than half that. This time round, McDonnell knows that to get enough nominations, he needs to reduce the number needed, hence the ‘McDonnell amendment’. This would mean a Labour leader does not need the support of more than a tiny handful of Labour MPs, which does not spell trouble at all.
Even in a roomful of Corbynistas, McDonnell is the most leftwing person in the room. He was sacked by Ken Livingstone as deputy of the Greater London Council in 1985 for wanting London to copy the glorious resistance of Militant-led Liverpool; even Livingstone thought it a bit extreme. In 2003 he praised the ‘bravery’ of the IRA. He then apologised ‘if he had caused offence’. If.
In the next contest, McDonnell could be either king or kingmaker. He stands to the left of Corbyn, Livingstone, Benn and Hugo Chavez. His heroes are Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky. The question now is whether his avuncular charm, endearing persona and years building loyal friendships among Labour MPs will outweigh his toxic extremism. Should he decide that his time has passed, McDonnell’s blessing to the next hard-left candidate will carry considerable weight. Anyone going against his wishes does so at their own risk.
Paul Richards is author of How to be a Spin Doctor
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Angela Rayner, Clive Lewis, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, Labour leadership, Paul Richards, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Richard Burgon