‘Once in a lifetime opportunity’: Why people are joining Labour’s ranks to vote in the leadership contest
Five days into the new year, 52-year-old Juliette Williams submitted an application to join Labour, a party she has supported for most of her adult life, for the first time. The self-declared fan of the former leader John Smith – the “greatest prime minister we never had” – said she was active in politics and the trade union movement during the Eighties and Nineties.
The business consultant from the northwest now intends to vote for the outspoken backbencher Jess Phillips if she manages to secure a place on the ballot in four weeks’ time. She claims to have become “disillusioned” with Labour under Ed Miliband’s stewardship of the party. “With the growth of Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader I got to the point where I couldn’t support Labour anymore,” she added.
In the wake of the December election, and Corbyn outlining his intention to resign, Williams, for the first time, started paying subs to the party. “For me, this is my once in a lifetime opportunity to influence,” she explained. “If I am able to influence it by getting a leader, somebody like Jess Phillips, then that’s fine and I will stay involved.”
She is one of thousands who are understood to have joined Labour’s ranks since the party’s worst electoral defeat of the post-war era. It is impossible to know at this stage what effect this influx of new members will have, but given the established left-leaning membership, outsider candidates vying to replace Corbyn, such as Phillips, will be hoping that many of those who have joined in recent weeks are as critical of Corbyn era as Williams.
As it stands, there are five contenders in the race to take Labour into the next election in 2024 – Phillips, fellow backbencher Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, the shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer, and the shadow business secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey. All of them received the required number of nominations from MPs at Westminster earlier this week. Before their name is rubber stamped onto the ballot paper, however, each of them faces the daunting prospect of winning the support of either 5 per cent (33) constituency Labour parties or least three affiliated organisation, with at least two of them being a trade union.
The candidates who pass this threshold will then go through to a ballot of all Labour’s members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters, with the results being announced on 4 April at a special conference. So far, two polls of the members have been made public: one putting Starmer in the lead, and another showing how the left-wing Long-Bailey could scrape to victory.
As was the case in the 2016 contest between Owen Smith and Corbyn, the party introduced a 48-hour period this week enabling individuals to become “registered supporters”, paying £25 to have a vote on Labour’s future direction. The party said 14,700 people took advantage of this – a tiny fraction of the 180,000 who did so three years ago.
A critical difference in this contest, however, is that there is still time to become a member of the party. Just after the Brexit referendum in 2016, when Owen Smith challenged Corbyn for the leadership, Labour’s governing body, the National Executive Committee (NEC), moved to stop the newest members from having a vote. Acting against the wishes of Corbyn’s team, the body introduced a freeze date of six months, meaning those who joined the party after February 2016 were ineligible to vote in the summer leadership contest.
This time round, the party is welcoming new members into its ranks to vote for Mr Corbyn’s successor until 5pm on 20 January. Under Labour’s "one member, one vote" system, all will have a critical say in the future direction of the party.
41-year-old Caroline Edgar, a communications worker from Blackheath, is one of those to have joined in recent weeks to vote in the contest. “I’ve never been party political,” she said. “To be honest watching from a distance – over the last three years or so the state of politics and the campaigning, the endless lies and soundbites, it’s been quite exasperating to watch and feel a bit powerless to do anything about it.
“But all of that said while Corbyn was still of the party – I didn’t like him, I didn’t like what he stands for. It was only when he said he was going to stand down and when I saw Jess [Phillips] was a candidate that I thought now is the time – if there was ever a time to lean in, no is it.”
Another new member, Ben, a 36-year-old assistant headteacher at a secondary school in the south of England, said he rejoined the party days before the general election after quitting in 2016 in protest at Mr Corbyn’s leadership and the handling of antisemitism allegations. “I anticipated that they’d lose and there would be an election campaign,” he said. “It was worse than I thought.”
Ben, who voted “begrudgingly” for Labour at the first December election for almost a century, added: “The precise reason I joined was to be able to vote in the leadership election and try and vote for someone who could steer the party back towards winning a general election and reach areas of the electorate that I don’t think the Corbynite wing of the party can reach.”
His preference is for Lisa Nandy, the Wigan MP, to succeed Mr Corbyn. “She understood the issue of Brexit,” he added. “She understands the perception of the Labour Party in regards to antisemitism. She appears to have the potential at least to reach sections that other’s cannot.
“I am a left-wing member of the public who wants a left of centre government and I don’t think we’re going to achieve that, well it’s proven we’re not going to achieve that at last election so I want to contribute in any way I can to make Labour electable again. I don’t think by choosing Rebecca Long-Bailey as leader the Labour Party will be electable again.”
Charity worker Liam Beattie joined Labour’s ranks in London on Monday, in order to vote for Thornberry, due to her support for LGBT+ issues. “I do love an underdog,” he said. “I think if we learnt anything from leadership elections is that they can be very, very surprising and it’s important not to rule anyone out at an early stage.”
He said he was put off joining the party earlier as it was “incredibly factional”, but added: “I decided to join as a member – it’s something I’ve thought long and hard about and I got involved in the 2019 general election and like a lot of people knocking on doors for the Labour Party, I was incredibly disheartened.
“But I think when I saw the leadership election, I realised I need to actually get involved – I don’t really want to be sitting on the sidelines any longer because I feel the state of politics – it’s needing a change really urgently.”