During the last Labour leadership election four and a half years ago, members of the party were faced with a stark choice. Of the four candidates who made it onto the ballot, Jeremy Corbyn stood out as the sole contender from the party’s left wing. The other three in the race: Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall, and Yvette Cooper, comparatively formed a homogenous, corporate-looking blob of centrist, ideological nothingness. Little seemed to separate them ideologically or aesthetically, and to the vast majority of members, they represented the same-old, stale politics that the party was keen to do away with. After the three month leadership battle was over, it was no surprise that Jeremy Corbyn won overwhelmingly.
Four years and two general election defeats later, the Labour party is embroiled in another leadership election. Whereas the field of battle in 2015 was staked upon the center-left ground, 2020’s election has been fought on definitively more socialist soil. During Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure, hundreds of thousands of left-leaning newcomers joined the party. All three leadership contenders know that they cannot win without appealing to the party’s enlarged left wing constituency and therefore all seem to agree on virtually everything. The huge policy differences of 2015 have been replaced by pernickety and mostly superficial disagreements about presentation. The leadership has seemed more like a post-mortem of the general election, in which candidates have argued about the flawed presentation of their “overloaded manifesto” and confusing Brexit policy. In the absence of real policy differences, the debate has focused on trivialities.
This political homogeneity has allowed a classic cancer of left wing political discourse to rear its ugly head: that of the left wing purity test. To its subscribers, only those politicians on the furthest left of the party are politically acceptable, while all others are not, irrespective of qualification or electability. The staunchest supporters of the party’s left, who have largely coalesced around Rebecca Long-Bailey, have referenced her consistent and staunch subscription to radical policies as proof of her authenticity. Her main opponent, Keir Starmer, is largely offering the same slew of policy ideas. They both had positions in Jeremy Corbyn’s cabinet and both helped craft the most radical manifesto for a major party in British history. For the Long-Bailey faithful, however, Starmer’s nascent entry into politics and past support for more moderate leadership contenders mean that he has not proved sufficiently authentic. He has not passed the left’s unnecessarily rigid and unhelpful purity test.
Long-Bailey’s impressive lack of qualifications for high office should be worrisome to the average Labour member, and will be shocking to the average voter. Her work as a low level solicitor was so insignificant she felt compelled to lie about it during her selection as the parliamentary candidate for Salford and Eccles, and falsely claimed to be a lawyer for the National Health Service. Her work following her election has been equally unremarkable. Even her elevation to the role of Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was made possible because two members had abandoned the role in just as many years. Desperate for man power, Corbyn had to rely on any willing candidate who was left, and Long-Bailey was handed a semi-important position on the front bench.
If Long-Bailey’s political immaturity wasn’t obvious before the leadership campaign, it certainly is now. Her presence on the debate stage alongside Starmer and the other contender in the race, Lisa Nandy, is incongruous verging on comical. Beyond qualifications, Long-Bailey strikes more as a nervous fresher at the university debating society than a serious contender for prime minister. Even Lisa Nandy, who does not have the C.V. of Former Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer, behaves like a thoughtful and mature politician. Where Long-Bailey nervously spews out pre-prepared answers with an expressionless vacuity, Starmer answers with intellect and Nandy with passion. In an ideal world, the next leader of the Labour party would be qualified and charismatic. In this imperfect leadership election, choose one. Long-Bailey has neither characteristic. Nevertheless, she has been buoyed by a sect of the party who pride purity over power.
The purity that people on the left expect from their candidates has all but been abandoned by the right. The reason the right keeps winning under the guise of populism is because it is not anathema for a right-wing politician to change his mind. For years, Boris Johnson was the standard bearer of the Conservative party’s liberal, ostensibly “compassionate” moderate wing. When he veered hard-right, first in his endorsement of his potential successor Zach Goldsmith’s islamophobic campaign for the London mayoralty, and then in heading the campaign to leave the European Union, Conservative party members didn’t look twice. When Johnson culminated his meandering journey to the top of the Conservative party in the leadership election last year, nobody questioned his hard-right credentials.
The same is true for Donald Trump, whose political flipancy has been as brazen as his disgusting self-admiration. The Republican party took a candidate who has entertained the idea of a national health service and consistently donated to Democratic candidates. Republicans endorsed him wholeheartedly, because they understood that purity is irrelevant in light of the prospect of power. Religious conservatives displayed their rank hypocrisy and lined up behind a philandering, rapist, divorcee, because the right-wing purity test has neither the influence, nor exerts the damage, that its left-wing counterpart does.
Now Starmer, who has pitched himself as a candidate firmly rooted in the most radical traditions of the Labour left, is struggling for support from that very base. By all indications, he is likely to win the leadership race when it concludes in April, but he will do so on the back of the party’s middle and right lanes, not the left-wing supporters who have fallen in line behind Long-Bailey. The majority of the party understands that this is a fight, not a game. After four election losses, the very existence of the party is at stake. The United Kingdom is screaming out for a radical Labour government, it is time for a legitimate standard bearer to carry that goal to reality. Purity tests do nothing to advance that cause.