Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
Every barrister in the country knows that to know your own case is to know very little; it is the same in politics. And that’s because politics, like law, ends up being a choice between competing and often complex versions of the truth. For the public, law is relatively easy – a jury is asked to make a judgement about a specific event, or series of events, in the past.
Unfortunately, our democratic process requires something slightly larger, we ask the public to make a judgement not on what has happened but instead on what will be the best, overall, for years into the future.
Those of us on the Conservative benches, particularly in marginal seats, therefore hold at least a passing interest in the result of the Labour leadership election. The truth is that whoever wins backed Jeremy Corbyn to be Prime Minister, and they each have their individual weaknesses. None is more problematic than another – but each will require a different style of engagement.
Now, I don’t care a jot Labour chooses a man or woman but, yet again, it seems inescapably drawn to the man in the final, despite three of the four candidates being women. What has become patently clear, in yet another leadership campaign, is that Labour’s rhetoric on equality seems to be more honoured in the breach than in the observance.
As one of the party’s MPs said to me the other day, when recounting what she’d heard from her local members: “They tell me they want someone who ‘looks the part.’ I know what they mean by that – they want a man.” In the best traditions of the New Labour era, Labour like women – particularly women from outside of the M25, or from modest backgrounds – to be “window dressing” as Caroline Flint once put it.
With Keir Starmer now the front-runner, followed by Rebecca Long-Bailey, the debate has become, at least for the moment, a two-horse affair.
This race is occurring while Labour is in crisis and is trying to figure out what sort of party it is. Many years ago, that answer was simple. It was the party of the massed ranks of (the majority) of the trades union movement. A big party of people from small houses, in the industrial midlands and North – people like my family from back in Mill Hill in Blackburn.
Today, Labour must choose whether it tacks back to those people with Rebecca Long-Bailey, or keeps on its present course to being, increasingly, a small party of people in big (or at least expensive) properties, Oddly, Sir Keir is the reactionary candidate. React to Brexit – vote for Sir Keir. React to Corbyn – vote for Sir Keir.
But, for Labour, I’m struggling to find what he is the answer to – bar a ‘safety run to Sir Keir when in trouble. The posh-ish white bloke who “looks like a prime minister” in the films: Hugh Grant, Michael Sheen. The uncle who takes you to The Ivy brasserie in Cambridge, when he pops by to visit you at university after giving a lecture in the MCR. Blair Mark Two. Middle Class comfort food for a tediously woke Islington upper-middle-class Labour membership.
Long-Bailey offers something different. Despite clearly being the Corbynite choice, she at least tries to offer a positive vision. I remember my grandmother, who later voted Conservative, telling me that she first remembers voting in 1964 and 1966 for Harold Wilson. Her mind was swayed by her young children and thoughts of the future.
Long-Bailey’s “Green Industrial Revolution” has echoes of that “White Heat of Technology” that ended up winning Labour only its second-ever decent majority in 1966. She’s worked to offer a socialist alternative – the details of which I will doubtless disagree with – but, unlike Sir Keir, she’s more than the knight who said no to Brexit (and ended up losing).
On Brexit, Boris Johnson dealt with Brexit in Conservative ranks, delivered unity and a united message. For Labour, though, the issue has become a running sore – and if it’s not dealt with it will be one for a long-time to come. It’s clear under Sir Keir, Labour would be fighting a Remainer rear-guard action for years. If Labour decides on Long-Bailey, we’ll know they’re ready to move on from Brexit and push a socialist agenda.
Any party that thinks the voters were wrong doesn’t deserve to win, and voters won’t let them. What Labour think the answer to the question of ‘what lost Labour the last election’ was – Brexit or socialism? – will be the answer to the leadership election. If Brexit was the issue, vote for Long-Bailey. If it was socialism itself, vote for Sir Keir. Either way, it’s pretty clear Labour seem intent of fighting the last war next time, and that’s reassuring for Conservative MPs up and down the country.