Despite their liberal manifestos, the Labour Party and the Democrats continue to choose men as their leaders
It wasn’t meant to be like this. This time it would be different; Britain’s Labour party was going to elect its new leader, and this time it would be a woman. They didn’t really seem to have a choice: Labour turns 120 this year, but not once had a woman managed to poll higher than a man in a leadership contest.
On top of that, the original field of candidates looked promising. There were four women— and one solitary man. Two women dropped out early but that still left twice as many women as men in the running.
In the end, none of that mattered. The results of the Labour Party leadership election will be announced next week and, unless there is a major upset, Keir Starmer, the lone male candidate, will be elected leader by a landslide.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. The Democratic candidate was going to be Kamala Harris — or was it going to be Elizabeth Warren? No, it was going to be Bernie Sanders. One thing was certain: it was not going to be Joe Biden.
Biden was polling high but his campaign was poor and he was nowhere to be seen; he was more of the same when the consensus seemed to be that the Democrats needed anything but that. Still, he went on and slowly but surely, until everyone but Bernie dropped out. Now Biden is almost certainly going to be the candidate for president who will face off against incumbent Donald Trump in November.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. Both contests had already been going on for weeks — months! — and were starting to near fever pitch, but the pandemic hit. We know for certain that the Labour party’s leadership race will end with a whimper as everyone remains focused on the coronavirus.
The Democratic convention, meanwhile, feels like it belongs to a distant future: who even knows what our world will look like in July? But this doesn’t mean either race should go unrecorded; there are lessons that will need to be learnt, once we have the time (and mental space) to do so.
Let’s look at what happened in Britain, where the Labour party has now been headed by Jeremy Corbyn for four and a half tumultuous years. He seemed to emerge from nowhere in 2015; with politics well to the left of the party’s mainstream, the 70-year-old lawmaker had for decades been a backbencher with obscure pet issues.
With Corbyn as its leader, the Labour party was in near constant revolt. Factional infighting reached its peak in the summer of 2016, when an attempt to oust him failed.
While his fellow MPs had a famously acrimonious relationship with Corbyn, he saw his popularity with the Labour membership spike and grow exponentially in the first few years. Sadly for him, it didn’t translate into success in the polls; sadly for then-Prime Minister Theresa May, Corbyn’s apparent weakness pushed her to call an election in 2017, which turned into one of the worst campaigns in memory, and resulted in Labour making some unexpected gains.
Buoyed, the left wing of the Labour party claimed victory over its centrist counterparts — whose policies, they insisted, had lost the party the 2010 and 2015 elections — but the triumphalism was relatively short-lived.
After May came Boris, and when Johnson called an election last year, it ended with Labour’s worst electoral results since 1935. The shock came and went, and then came the gloating, this time from the moderates. After warning for four years that the hard left would bring disaster, they felt vindicated.
Corbyn’s faction, on the other hand, claimed that the election had been solely focussed on Brexit, and that the loss could be attributed to the Conservatives’ straightforward Leave message, as opposed to their own muddled position of a second referendum.
Then the leadership contest started, with Rebecca Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer emerged as the three main candidates.
Most people believed that Long-Bailey would win; she always was a close ally of Jeremy Corbyn’s and the membership presumably still loved Corbyn, so it should have been a done deal.
It wasn’t. Stuck in the former leader’s shadow, Long-Bailey struggled to make a case for herself. Yes, she was of the left, no, she wasn’t “continuity Corbyn: yes, she was asked to rate his leadership on television and gave him “10/10”; no, she couldn’t really explain what policies of hers would be a departure from the past few years.
She’s also, well, a bit middle of the road. Brought up in Manchester, she studied politics and sociology at university, and eventually became a solicitor in 2007. She joined the Labour party in 2010, was elected to a safe seat in 2015, and joined the frontbench after Corbyn’s victory, though never quite made waves.
As the party’s spokesperson for business, she pushed on establishing a Green New Deal, but the policy got a bit lost in the discourse; in fact, everything she did in those five years always failed to really land. That she was seen as the given pro-Corbyn candidate was telling.
Many observers have pointed to the similarities between Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, both socialists roughly the same age who tend to have acrimonious relationships with their fellow legislators. But while Sanders has loyalists like 30 year-0ld Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez poised to pick up his torch, Corbyn has left no such legacy. Under Corbynism, no successor was allowed to grow and bloom—and here we are.
Lisa Nandy had the opposite problem. Unlike Long-Bailey, she is not stuck with the Corbynite label. Nandy is a woman of no faction.
The daughter of Indian Marxist academic Dipak Nandy and granddaughter of Liberal Party MP then peer Frank Byers, she has been in Parliament since 2010 — a term longer than her two opponents. Despite her pedigree, she has always been a bit of an outsider; often hovering near the frontbench but never fully a frontline politician.
There is a drum she has been banging, often alone, and it is: English towns that used to be safe Labour strongholds are leaving us in droves because we have stopped listening to them, and the party must reconnect with its northern working class base if it wants to survive.
She is absolutely right, of course, and did gain traction when she got to claim that she had been warning that the 2019 election results would be inevitable for a long time. When the party lost seats like Bolsover — held by socialist stalwart Dennis Skinner since 1970 — and Sedgefield, which was home for decades to a certain Tony Blair, people finally started to listen.
Still, identifying a problem and finding a solution are two different things, and she never quite convinced her peers that she had succeeded with the latter.
Then there is our last candidate, who is simultaneously the most and least exciting figure in the race. On the one hand, he used to be the Director of Public Prosecutions and head of the Crown Prosecution Service, for which he was knighted, and is rumoured to be the man Helen Fielding based dreamy Mark Darcy in her 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary (later made into a hit film with Colin Firth in the role of Mark Darcy).
On the other, he is boring. Keir Starmer is not an exciting politician; he is a former barrister who measures his words, speaks with the cadence of an expert, and has always managed to keep out of his party’s factional warfare. His policy platform is a bit Corbynite but not entirely so; he appealed to the moderates in Labour but without appearing like one of them either.
In fact, he is currently all things to all people; he really could not be possibly accused of leaning into populism, and he is about to become the Labour party leader. Perhaps his very own brand of establishment dullness will be needed in five years’ time, when Britain’s voters have gone through a full term of Boris Johnson. Or perhaps desperate times call for desperate measures, and he simply is not up to the gargantuan task ahead of him.
In short: Labour is playing it safe. It could have taken a gamble by electing one of two 40-year-old women occupying northern seats, but is going instead with a 57-year-old man based down the road from the current leader’s inner London constituency. Starmer and Biden may be different, but the circumstances of their rise feel eerily similar.
Header image courtesy of Chris Boland.