(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. Labour Party’s search for a new leader to replace Jeremy Corbyn following December’s disastrous general election defeat is down to three candidates: Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy.
The winner, to be announced on April 4 following a ballot of Labour members, will immediately face the challenge of uniting a party bitterly divided over Corbyn’s socialist policies and accusations of antisemitism. With Boris Johnson’s Tories holding an 80-seat majority, it’s an uphill task to resurrect Labour’s fortunes as a legitimate government-in-waiting.
Here are brief profiles of the candidates:
Keir Starmer, 57: The Arch Remainer
Keir Starmer, Corbyn’s Brexit spokesman, is the front-runner, comfortably ahead of Rebecca Long-Bailey. That’s based on YouGov polling of Labour members and endorsements from MPs, local party branches, and organizations affiliated to the Labour movement including trade unions.
Starmer hasn’t always been loyal to the current leader -- particularly when it comes to the question of the U.K.’s relationship with the European Union. He backed Corbyn’s rivals in the 2015 and 2016 leadership contests and is one of the party’s most vocal Remainers -- responsible for gradually steering the party leadership to a stance supporting a second referendum.
While Starmer has been accused of being out of touch with working class Leave voters in northern England, he’s arguably closer to them than Corbyn, who was privately educated. He told the BBC he’d never been in an office until he left university, because his father worked in a factory and his mother was a nurse.
Viewed as the moderates’ choice, he’s positioned himself as a middle-ground candidate who is neither Corbynite or Blairite, warning activists not to “trash” either the last Labour government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, or Corbyn’s hard-left leadership.
“We can only win if we are united and relentlessly focused on the future,” he said in his first campaign rally on Feb. 16.
Starmer has been careful not to criticize Corbyn too much over December’s election defeat, saying everyone in the party’s leadership shares responsibility. He has also warned the party not to “oversteer” but rather “build on” Corbyn’s anti-austerity message and radical agenda. The party has to “be bold enough to say the free market model doesn’t work” because wealth hasn’t trickled down through society, he said at his campaign launch.
He’s pledged to retain a lot of Corbyn’s program, including scrapping tuition fees for university students, increasing income tax on the top 5% of earners and nationalizing the railways, the postal system and energy and water utilities. He’s also vowed to fight for free movement of people to continue with the EU, and to grant full voting rights to EU nationals living in the U.K.
Starmer has an impressive legal career behind him, and was knighted for his role as Director of Public Prosecutions between 2008 and 2013 before he became an MP in 2015.
Rebecca Long-Bailey, 40: The Chosen One
If you were going to build a new Labour leader from scratch, Rebecca Long-Bailey would probably tick most of the boxes: A young, female, strong media performer who hails from a northern constituency with a safe majority.
Crucially, she’s also loyal to the current leadership, raising eyebrows early in the contest by saying she’d give Corbyn “10 out of 10” for his stewardship. In February, she went as far as to say she’d offer him a place in her shadow cabinet. With the party’s membership still firmly to the left of Labour’s MPs, this could prove key in gaining the support needed to win the contest.
But she’s also sought to insert some distance, saying she’s “not anybody’s continuity candidate,” criticizing the party’s handling of antisemitism and openly contradicting Corbyn by saying Labour “didn’t win the argument” in the general election. In a Feb. 14 speech on Labour’s “Path to Power,” she cited -- and agreed with -- a tract from Blair’s 1997 election manifesto.
Even so, Long-Bailey remains committed to Corbyn’s core message. In an article for Tribune magazine announcing her candidacy, she said December’s defeat “was a failure of campaign strategy, not of our socialist program.” She’s pledged to retain pledges to nationalize energy and water utilities as well as the railways and postal system.
“Retreating from popular policies that provide answers to the crises facing our country is no route to victory,” she said in her Feb. 14 speech. She identified four policies that are key to winning power: empowering workers, communities and trade unions; devolving power to the regions and replacing the House of Lords with an elected chamber; encouraging aspiration; and tackling “the big polluters, the bad bosses, the dodgy landlords and the tax dodgers.”
After spending the past few years developing Labour’s climate policies, Long-Bailey is also pushing for a “Green Industrial Revolution,” pledging programs to insulate homes, incentivize renewable energy and promote electric cars.
Long-Bailey is a close friend of Angela Rayner, and has said she backs Labour’s education spokeswoman to be deputy leader. Rayner has returned the favor. There have been suggestions they could be the party’s next power duo, akin to Blair and Brown, or indeed Corbyn and John McDonnell.
Lisa Nandy, 40: Cheerleader for Towns
Lisa Nandy launched her bid for the top job with a letter to the local newspaper in the town of Wigan, where she’s been the MP since 2010, and a core part of her focus has been on local issues such as crime and transport links.
“We have one chance to win back the trust of people in Wigan, Workington and Wrexham: without what were once our Labour heartlands we will never win power in Westminster,” Nandy wrote in the Wigan Post when launching her campaign. “We need a leader who is proud to be from those communities, has skin in the game, and is prepared to go out, listen and bring Labour home to you.”
While hardly a Corbyn ally, Nandy has praised him for taking a strong stance against austerity -- and also criticized past Labour governments under Blair and Brown of continuing “the consensus” built by former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Her diagnosis of the cause of Labour’s defeat in December is not that its policies were wrong, but that the leadership was disconnected from the grassroots and the public didn’t trust the party to deliver on the right priorities.
“Trust was the issue,” she told Sky News in January. “Not the radicalism, not the deep and fundamental change that we were promising, but trust.”
In a sign of her ability to bridge divides, Nandy, the chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, earned the endorsement of the U.K. Jewish Labour Movement for her stance against antisemitism in the party.
A former charity worker, Nandy is media-friendly and her northern roots will be seen as an advantage as Labour seeks to win back its traditional voters who abandoned the party in the election. She co-founded the Centre for Towns, a think tank that aims to revive smaller urban areas.
Nandy, though, may find it difficult to win over Corbyn supporters, having quit as Labour’s energy spokeswoman in 2016 to join an attempt to overthrow him and serving as co-chair in Owen Smith’s failed leadership campaign.
She campaigned against Brexit in the 2016 referendum, but has since argued the EU divorce must be delivered. She voted for Johnson’s deal in October, but then voted against it in December because she said Johnson was no longer interested in making cross-party compromises to improve the bill.
--With assistance from Greg Ritchie.
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