The Labour leadership race risks becoming a personality contest – we should focus on policy instead

Starmer is only more electable than Long-Bailey if we mistakenly return to making choices based on the performance of our politicians at a time when it is strategically smarter to put the policies at the forefront

Rebecca Long-Bailey says Labour manifesto was poorly communicated

There are two clear front-runners in the Labour Party leadership race. When members choose between Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey in March, we will get a clear sense of the party’s post-Corbyn trajectory.

The common narrative is either that we drift back to the political centre via Starmer or continue a push to the left with Long-Bailey, but there is something else embodied in the choice between these candidates that may be just as important. The choice is between collective politics and individual personality. Taking the wrong path now could dampen the political progress that the left has made since 2015.

We all remember the “Corbynistas”, the ironic football chanting of Jeremy Corbyn's name and the Labour meme communities who made him into an icon. Despite this, one of the best things about the past two Labour campaigns is that they have been about policies and manifestos rather than individuals.

Long-Bailey was often the behind-the-scenes architect of these policies, which aimed to serve everyone rather than just those who were charmed by the leader.

Now we hear that Long-Bailey might have the right ideas but isn’t going to win the votes because a lack of personality or charisma. Starmer, on the other hand, is endlessly referred to as the “electable” choice who might be able to charm his way to victory.

Starmer is only more electable than Long-Bailey if we mistakenly return to making choices based on the performance of our politicians at a time when it is strategically smarter to put the policies at the forefront.

Long-Bailey was a key part of creating the 2017 Alternative Models of Ownership proposal. She has been demanding a green revolution for years and she wrote large parts of the Green New Deal proposed in 2019. She became involved with Labour in 2010 in response to Conservative plans to dismantle the NHS and she has emerged as part of a growing collective movement around Corbyn since nominating him for leader back in 2015. In short, she represents a clear set of policies and proposals which have formed the backbone of the emergent Labour left – one that had been growing until the 2019 election, and can continue to grow now.

This is not just about sticking to political values and refusing to make concessions in order to get into government, though the danger that some candidates may do so has been flagged by Long-Bailey. It is also strategically shrewd to select a leader whose focus is on the policies and ideas rather than presenting themselves as someone who can argue their way into government.

That focus is the best way to build a powerful collective movement with grassroots support that can move away from identity politics and appeal to a diverse range of people.

Some critics have said Long-Bailey might fail to compete with Johnson’s big, blustering personality. Long-Bailey is, as it happens, a good speaker who is articulate and gets her political points across with refreshingly clear veracity.

This is not the defence we should make, however, against those lobbying accusations of her having an unelectable character. Instead, her personality should be seen as irrelevant in favour of putting the policies directly on the table, not only because this is how it should be (a point made often enough) but because it will be strategically effective. With this strategy, rather than by playing him at his own game as Starmer threatens to attempt, Boris Johnson can and will be beaten.

The left needs to avoid the trap of focusing on personality on the opposite side too. Attacks on Johnson’s stupidity and appearance enable easy and effective replies from the right, such as, “I actually think he’s very smart” and “Well I happen to like him”. When the game is set up this way, it is already lost.

With Starmer, Labour runs the risk of a popularity contest, which it is probably bound to lose. With Long-Bailey as the spokesperson of the movement from which she emerged, Johnson’s personality can be rendered irrelevant and Labour can continue its progress toward a collective politics for the many.

Alfie Bown is a lecturer in Media Arts at Royal Holloway University London and author of several books on digital medi

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