Divisions in Durham: Labour members split over future at last hustings before members vote on new leader

Colin Drury

In the 60 years since her father first gave her Labour membership as a 16th birthday present, Audrey Thompson has seen a lot of party leaders come and go.

But none, she fears, have been as bad as Rebecca Long-Bailey would be.

“She’s the sponsored candidate of an organisation [Momentum] that doesn’t want to win an election,” says the retired trade union official, 77. “All they want to be is antagonists in opposition. That’s not real Labour.”

As party members prepare to vote for the next leader from Monday, the latest in a marathon slog of hustings was held in Durham on Sunday.

Candidates Long-Bailey, Lisa Nandy and Sir Kier Starmer answered questions from some 600 or so of the faithful crammed into a sweltering room inside the northeast city’s Radisson Blu hotel.

But, at the end, only one thing had really become clear: party members up here remain hugely divided on who should replace Jeremy Corbyn and how the party should now move forward.

And they’re not always entirely comradely about such differences of opinion.

“He’s been a disaster,” says Ms Thompson, a Sunderland woman apparently well known among friends for forthrightness. “And, if we get the wrong person in now, she will be even worse. We will be out of power for another 10 years.”

This was not, to be clear, a consensus. There wasn’t one. For everyone who feared shadow business secretary Ms Long-Bailey becoming leader, there were plenty saying the MP for Salford and Eccles was the only candidate who could succesfully take on Boris Johnson and the Tories. For everyone who said Mr Corbyn was to blame for last year’s historically bad election, there were plenty who said it was all about a confused Brexit policy.

But the strength of feeling on all sides does perhaps highlight that this is a party aware it is wrestling with an existential decision.

On stage, in Durham, there is something of a (pre-planned?) love-in when the three candidates say, for the first time, they will serve in each other’s shadow cabinets. Off it, among the crowd, however, there is talk that this contest is battle-for-the-soul stuff.

“I find it depressing that the favourite [Sir Kier] will probably end up winning,” says Jack Pearce, a 19-year-old archology student at the city’s university. “This is a man who literally came up with the worst Labour policy in decades. His handling of Brexit was a disaster – it showed a complete lack of understanding of the north and the Midlands – and the fact he is not acknowledging that, and now running for leader, is arrogance on a breathtaking scale.”

Does he feel the shadow Brexit secretary has any redeeming qualities?

“He looks good in a suit, doesn’t he?” comes the youngster’s reply.

Pearce, himself, in common with the university’s labour group, will be voting for Long-Bailey.

They like her talk of a green industrial revolution – as indeed, it seems, does Long-Bailey herself. In Durham, she crowbars it into every answer she can. At one point, when asked about her proudest achievement, she says it is this green industrial revolution – despite it literally being a policy proposal that remains entirely unachievable by virtue of the fact Labour lost the election.

Nandy, stood next to her, appears to be doing everything she can to prevent her eyes rolling at the answer. But then Nandy – unless it’s just me? – appears to be do that for a lot of Long-Bailey’s answers.

What else is talked about up there? Not trans rights, which have, at times, appeared to dominate this contest but which, up here in Durham, simply don’t get asked about. There is not much on policy detail either.

With a probable four years until the next election, all three candidates speak in agreeable generalities rather than specifics. The NHS needs improving; antisemitism must be rooted out; the north should have more power over itself. There are hints at differences – on open selection, Trident, the ongoing relationship with the EU – but, largely, this appears an exercise by all three candidates in trying to keep as many party members onside as possible.

As a result, perhaps, few people afterwards appear to have changed their mind about who they will be voting for.

“I think they all performed well but I like Rebecca Long-Bailey,” says 26-year-old chef Calum Litten “I think she’s a good speaker. But I also just like her policies and her world view. They align with mine. She’s the only candidate, I think, that mentioned socialism today.”

Given that she helped draw up the 2019 manifesto, is there not a danger, one might wonder, that those very policies could lead to a fifth general election defeat on the trot?

“There’s always that danger,” admits Andy Moore, a 56-year-old businessman who will also vote Long-Bailey. “But I knocked on hundreds of doors during the election. People liked the policies when you got them talking but we lost them on Brexit – especially in this part of the world.”

This part of the world, of course, being the so-called great red wall. Or, rather, the former great red wall.

Durham itself remained Labour – though with a majority reduced from 12,364 to 5,025 – but looming large in the background today was the loss of seats, like Bishop Auckland and Blyth Valley, which have been solidly Labour for decades.

“Now we need someone who can go and win them back,” says Nic Mitchell, a 66-year-old PR consultant from Middlesborough. “For me, that’s Lisa Nandy. I think you put her – a northern woman, daughter of an Indian father – up against Boris Johnson and he just looks like what he is: an overprivileged public schoolboy telling the north what to do despite having no knowledge of life up here. She’s quick and across details and would run rings round him.”

Indeed, while few people appear willing to make Nandy their first choice in the preference vote, she appears something of a uniting figure amid the disunity.

Everyone appears to like the MP for Wigan. Many say she will be their second preference votes. Several, in fact, suggest her as the next leader but one.

“I think this contest came too soon for her,” says Joe Lawson, a 69-year-old Starmer supporter from Sunderland, as the crowds begins to thin out. “But she’s only 40. I look at her and my hope is that today we’ve seen two future Labour prime ministers.”

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