To understand where the Labour party’s leadership contest is heading, it’s important to understand who the members are. It’s not an exact science, but they can be roughly divided into three parts. One-third will vote for whoever they perceive as the leftwing candidate, another third will vote for whoever isn’t the leftwing candidate, and then there’s the remaining third. It’s these swing voters who will decide the winner. They overwhelmingly backed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, believed in his general vision, are traumatised by Labour’s crushing defeat, and want to reconcile their principles with achieving power. It’s this faction that is driving Keir Starmer’s current lead in CLP nominations and polling. The shadow Brexit secretary’s campaign has succeeded in convincing the membership that under his leadership the party would not significantly depart from their core beliefs. Indeed, those who feel more aligned to Rebecca Long-Bailey feel that he is sufficiently similar to her in policy and principle to allow them to vote for the more “electable” Starmer.

This is, in part, down to a gendered interpretation of what makes someone look and act like a prime minister. The portrayal of Long-Bailey as the “continuity Corbyn” candidate makes the sexist assumption that a prominent female politician lacks agency. The Salford and Eccles MP’s northern, working-class background has given her a distinct worldview from that of Corbyn.

Serving as shadow business secretary, she has shown a solid grasp of detail – more so than the average politician – and has revealed flashes of personality and humour throughout the contest. But her campaign started too late; and the Labour left – including those staffing her team – is exhausted after nearly half a decade of bitter struggle and a shattering election defeat. Long-Bailey’s one cut-through moment was rating Corbyn 10/10, a kneejerk response to a silly question, driven by loyalty to a friend. The middle third of the membership would probably settle on 6/10, warmly thank Corbyn for his service, and look to replace him with someone who can draw a roadmap away from electoral defeat. Similarly, Long-Bailey’s commitment to the open selection of Labour MPs is a democratic no-brainer happily adopted by other political parties: but it isn’t a burning priority for the middle third, and certainly not after December’s defeat.

The structural disadvantage Long-Bailey has is that, unlike Corbyn in the 2015 leadership contest, she isn’t the insurgent. Nor can she simply announce a raft of fresh new policies that other candidates will publicly disavow, drawing dividing lines in the sand. There is, after all, a consensus across Labour’s spectrum that the party machine gunned the electorate with a multitude of policies during the election, but failed to unite them under one overarching message. Throwing new policies into the mix would raise eyebrows rather than support. Instead, her strategy should be to present herself as the most trustworthy custodian of Labour’s existing policies, not least on public ownership, democratising the economy, and the party’s green new deal (personally crafted by her and her team). It makes sense, too, for Long-Bailey to present herself as well placed to win back the leave voters that were haemorrhaged en masse by Labour in the north and the Midlands. There should be more acknowledgment of what went wrong during the Corbyn era – besides the impossible political trauma of solving the Brexit culture war – in order to reassure the middle third that the same mistakes will be avoided. She needs canny interventions – particularly showing talent at holding the Tories to account.

Starmer’s campaign has been effective at tapping into the Labour movement’s infighting fatigue. On the one hand, he has directly recruited alumni of the Corbyn project, such as Kat Fletcher and Simon Fletcher (no relation). The latter went from chief of staff under Ken Livingstone to running Corbyn’s first leadership campaign and becoming his chief of staff (via an interlude as Ed Miliband’s trade union liaison office). He’s strategic, thoughtful and clever. Some in Starmer’s team would like to keep John McDonnell as shadow chancellor (it is highly unlikely he’d agree even if offered) and they have attempted to recruit Momentum’s Laura Parker. On the other hand, his team includes Morgan McSweeney, Liz Kendall’s 2015 organiser and Labour First national organiser, Matt Pound. The latter would gladly drive the left from the party, and his presence on the campaign has unsettled those who want to see an end to infighting and some continuity with the Corbyn project. The question is: how stable is this coalition, and who will end up disappointed?

The key battleground will be over Starmer’s policy agenda. His team is debating how much policy definition to give him and, as happened with Ed Miliband, this may lead to others filling in the blanks. If he secures the leadership, the right of the party will demand that what they see as the moral stain of Corbynism be cleaned from the party, as they call for the junking of Corbyn-era policies. Those close to Starmer say he was initially sceptical about the 2017 manifesto – not objecting to individual policies so much as believing it was an overambitious combined offer – but changed his mind when it played a key role in depriving the Tories of their majority.

Labour’s left flank should pressure Starmer’s team to commit to policies now: last weekend, they pledged to maintain the commitment to increase tax on the top 5% and, on Tuesday, he pledged to keep Labour’s plans to bring key utilities into public ownership. However, there’s been some scepticism within his camp about what they see as top-down 1970s style statist nationalisation. Yet what has been all too rarely understood about Corbynism is that it rejected that model in favour of democratic ownership, as Labour’s 2017 paper, Alternative Models of Ownership set out. If Starmer wins, a crucial new role of Momentum in particular must surely be to defend these policy commitments.

This indecisiveness may raise questions over Starmer’s ability to defend these policies in the face of ferocious media fire. If he cannot, he will look weak and incoherent, which, in the end, is what did it for Corbyn over Brexit. Indeed, those hoping for improved media treatment under a new leader will face profound disappointment: Ed Miliband was as vanilla as they come and was still crucified. Starmer must offer reassurance on this point: but if he is victorious, the left should be constructive and give him the benefit of the doubt when he says Labour should not “oversteer” from its radical agenda.

Both frontrunners face different questions on securing electoral victory while defending red lines on Labour’s popular domestic policies. It should be a constructive, friendly debate – but one that secures definitive and lasting answers.

Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist

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