The current Labour leadership election follows years of messy warfare within the party. MPs have been briefing against each other almost daily, while factions within the membership battle it out at monthly meetings. Corbynites believe that infighting cost Labour the 2017 general election – an analysis that Rebecca Long-Bailey has consistently put forward at hustings over recent weeks. Corbyn-sceptics maintain that the leadership team of Jeremy Corbyn was more interested in winning the internal struggles than elections at large, and that this contributed to the devastating defeat in December. It is no surprise that party unity has become a dominant theme in this contest, and will be a major challenge for Labour’s next leader.

When Corbyn ran for the top job in 2015, he needed 15% of the parliamentary party to back him to secure a place on the ballot paper. The veteran leftwing MP did scrape through this initial stage of the race, but did not do so with that level of genuine support. He instead relied on colleagues – later called “morons” – casting “strategic” nominations, which incidentally turned out not to have any strategy behind them. Almost half of his 35 nominations came from Labour MPs who did not actually want him to win, in a bid to broaden the debate. And yet he was endorsed by 152 local parties, substantially more than any of the other three contenders, and swept to victory in the final vote.

This disparity between the parliamentary party and the wider membership can barely be found in the 2020 leadership contest. The threshold of MP/MEP nominations needed has been lowered to 10%, but all three candidates still in the running gained more than required – and theirs were genuine supporters. Rebecca Long-Bailey benefited from a boosted left flank in the parliamentary Labour party. (While the election was a disaster, it brought 26 new Labour MPs due to resignations and defections. Nearly all are on the party’s left.) As a result, her parliamentary support was in keeping with her local party numbers. And on this measure, Keir Starmer excelled, winning by far the most nominations in both categories.

The gaping divide between members and MPs that existed under Corbyn is no longer. That’s good news for party unity, especially for the frontrunner. Judging by both nominations and polling, Starmer seems likely to be elected with strong support from both levels of the party, which in turn could weaken the case for Labour left initiatives – such as open selections – that he does not champion. Some members who voted for Corbyn, followed by Starmer rather than Long-Bailey, appear set to change their minds, while others are new or returning members ready to defend a more centrist leadership.

The bad news for unity is that a very careful balancing act lies in wait for the incoming leader. There are still deep divisions, which are evident particularly in the deputy leadership race where differences in approach are more stark. YouGov and Survation polling shows first preference support for Richard Burgon – firmly on the Labour left – to be between 19% and 23%. That is a sizable chunk. And while it is highly improbable that the Leeds East MP will win the deputy election, there is another crucial prize: being picked as leader of the Labour left. With an enlarged Socialist Campaign Group, of which Burgon is the secretary, there is no reason to doubt that the Corbynites in parliament will act as a vocal pressure group under a Starmer leadership.

By talking of little other than the need for unity, Starmer has set himself a task that looks almost impossible to deliver. He aims to change party culture, which is deeply embedded. He wants everybody who quit Labour over antisemitism to feel comfortable to return, yet this would include former MPs who stood against Labour at the last election – something the incumbent party chair, Ian Lavery, has described as “offensive”. Starmer is not thought likely to initiate a membership purge, preferring soft power moves, but he does want to replace the highest disciplinary body now in place with an independent complaints system.

Such an ambition brings us to the most widely overlooked aspect of this leadership election: that Labour’s ruling body, the national executive committee, will be reshaped. A change in the leader alone will affect four NEC places (including three frontbench appointments). Then there are three byelections – two local party representatives, one BAME post – being held alongside the main contest. Party reforms that constitute a crucial part of Starmer’s platform, including an independent complaints system, necessitate rule changes that would have to go through the NEC and conference first. The left majority on the NEC is already considered soft and narrow by Corbynites, which means the byelections are of utmost importance.

If Starmer is chosen to be Labour’s next leader, the success of his principal aim – to unify the party – will ultimately depend on the success of his other key pledge – electability. The latest Survation poll for LabourList shows that the top priority of eligible voters in the leadership contest is “credibility as a potential prime minister”. For Starmer to unite Labour, he would need to prove, through local elections, poll ratings and finally the next general election, that he can deliver on his main selling point of being “prime ministerial”. On that basis, the scale of challenge cannot be overstated.

Sienna Rodgers is editor of LabourList

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