As Labour heads into another leadership contest, it will be the votes of the party’s 550,000 members that will matter most in the end. They will have the final say after a 12-week contest that will start next month.
Since 2015, the membership has been strongly supportive of Jeremy Corbyn, and he won thumping majorities in 2015 and 2016 thanks largely to them. But after the recent catastrophic election defeat, Labour’s fourth in a row, are some losing patience? Do they want more Corbynism, or is the brand now tainted by failure?
Shannon Jezzard, a 24-year-old Labour councillor in Harlow, Essex, is a member of the pro-Corbyn grassroots movement Momentum. She voted for Corbyn in the past two leadership elections.
“I really liked his consistent voting record – opposing cuts and austerity – and felt like he was always on the right side of history, especially when it came to the Iraq war,” she says. Jezzard would like to see more Corbynism in the form of Rebecca Long Bailey, a long-term ally of the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, as the next leader.
“I think she’s a great candidate –she has good politics, but without the baggage of longer-standing MPs, and is genuinely likeable. I think it’d be good to get out of the London bubble and see someone lead the party from up north.”
Backing Long Bailey for leader over Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry or Lisa Nandy might seem the obvious choice for Labour members who have previously supported Corbyn. The shadow business secretary has strong links with the union movement, whose endorsement will also be important in the forthcoming contest. However, other young members disagree.
Jonny Lawrence, 25, a PhD student, backed Corbyn in the last two leadership contests but encountered hostility towards him in the general election campaign. “I canvassed loads for Anneliese Dodds in Oxford East and the main issue coming up on the doorstep for us was Corbyn as a leader. It was difficult – I lost faith in him myself, to be honest,” he says.
Lawrence is now leaning towards Nandy, a candidate who has forged an identity and a message entirely separate from Corbyn and his allies.
“I do think she was right on Brexit and how we need to go about rebuilding the party,” he says. “Our focus needs to be, as she has said, on restoring faith in the towns across the UK that Labour can provide a better future for.
“In reality, the manifesto’s flagship policies were out of touch and were much more appealing to me and my demographic than the demographic we needed to win.”
Alice Gent, 21, says she “strongly aligns to the left of [Labour] and its values”. But she too found Corbyn’s unpopularity with voters to be a strong factor in the election and is not in favour of a “continuity Corbyn” leadership. “Long Bailey as leader and Angela Rayner as deputy would just be a bit of a slap in the face for Labour voters who turned away due to Corbyn. Long-Bailey would just be repeating the mistakes of our biggest defeat since 1935,” she says. Gent spent the campaign knocking on doors in London. “Every door I knocked on Corbyn was the issue, and he must have seen how unpopular he was in polling so I don’t understand the decision not to let someone else lead. I do feel it was arrogant.” She too backs Nandy, the MP for Wigan. “I think we’ve had too many north London Liberal elite-esque leaders and [Nandy] would be a welcome change from this”.
Since the beginning of the election campaign, Labour membership has risen by more than 50,000. Georgina Holden, 22, is one of those who has joined up. She left the party in mid-2019 before rejoining shortly after the exit poll was published on election night because she wanted a say over who should take Labour forward. “I wanted to make sure that I get a say in who leads the party out of the abyss. I knew that the membership would most likely vote for the Corbyn continuity candidate, and I wanted to stop that from happening,” she says.
“I’m not going to vote for a candidate seen as Corbyn 2.0. The media gives Labour leaders a hard enough time as it is, and we need to combat that. To elect a continuity candidate would be to tell the electorate we’ve learned nothing.”
Despite this, Holden liked the policies. It was the messenger not the message that was the problem. “[Labour] needs someone who can bring these leftwing policies forward but who appears sensible,” she said.
Phe Hayhurst, a 19-year-old student from Reading, has been a Labour member since 2015. She voted for Corbyn in both leadership elections. But now she’s backing Keir Starmer because, she says, he is “best placed to bring the party back together” and is “not too closely aligned with any faction of the party, and comes across well in public and in the House of Commons”.
Francine Mead, a 22-year old working in public affairs, has also been a Labour member since 2015 and previously backed Yvette Cooper (in 2015) and then Jeremy Corbyn (in 2016).
For her Starmer also looks the best on offer. “There is no point in a main political party existing under first-past-the-post if it cannot win elections. I’ve wanted Starmer to stand as leader for quite some time now.”
“He hasn’t pandered to factions, he doesn’t let himself be defined by individuals – he just does his job with passion and respect.”
Since the summer of 2015, a majority of Labour members have been solidly in favour of project Corbyn.
Now it seems some believe it is time for change, and that the worst reaction to the election result would be just more of the same.