Emily Thornberry tells unions: 'don't close gates' to would-be Labour leaders

Kate Proctor
Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Emily Thornberry has warned the trade unions not to “keep the gates closed” to leadership candidates, claiming members deserve the widest possible choice.

The shadow foreign secretary is yet to receive a single union backing, which she must secure to get her name on the ballot paper. She said conversations with unions and affiliate organisations to try to win their backing were ongoing.

She said unions know they have a unique position in the race to replace Jeremy Corbyn but in their role as gatekeepers they should not shut down choice for members.

Her remarks at the launch of her campaign came as the latest YouGov poll for the Times newspaper of Labour members placed her last in the race, on 3% of the first preference vote share. Keir Starmer was pulling ahead of Rebecca Long-Bailey in the final round as the favourite to take over from Corbyn, at 63% compared to her 37%.

At Friday’s launch she set out her experience on the frontline of political campaigning and described herself as the “battle-hardened” candidate, the person tough enough to take on Boris Johnson and resilient enough to rescue the party from its crushing election defeat.

“In my 42 years as a member of the Labour party, there is no fight or campaign our movement has waged where I have not been on the frontline,” she said.

“And since coming to parliament 15 years ago, I’ve also been on the frontline in the fights against climate change, universal credit, and anti-abortion laws in Northern Ireland.

“I’ve led the charge as shadow foreign secretary against Donald Trump and the war in Yemen, and in the two years I shadowed Boris Johnson as foreign secretary, I showed him up every time for the lying, reckless charlatan that he is.

“I know I can be the woman who stands up and leads the fightback against Boris Johnson. And we’re going to need someone tough, someone resilient, someone experienced and battle-hardened to lead that fight.”

Thornberry’s reference to abortion came as rival Long-­Bailey’s views on the subject became a focal point for the campaign debate. The shadow business secretary said in the general election that she “did not agree” with the law that allows terminations on grounds of disability after 24 weeks – but stressed that this was a personal view.

Despite her seniority in the party Thornberry has polled poorly so far in the race to replace Corbyn. Of the unions, she said: “I think the union movement appreciates that they have a role in this election process which they have not had before and what they need to do is not be gatekeepers that keep the gates closed.

“What we need ... is we need to have an open contest where members can decide and they can assess the quality of the candidates, and [the unions] need therefore to make sure that there is a wide view.”

She was the first to declare she was running to replace Corbyn after the general election. A Survation poll of LabourList members this week put her as the first choice preference of just 1% of those who took part.

The 59-year-old used her launch, which she chose to do in her hometown of Guildford, Surrey, to talk about her childhood where she grew up on a council estate with her mum, a single parent.

She thanked a late local councillor Bill Bellerby who supported the family when she was young and inspired her mother’s own journey into politics. Thornberry’s mother, Sallie, was a Labour councillor and mayor in Guildford and her father, Cedric, ran to be a Labour candidate for the town at the 1966 general election.

She said: “When our dad walked out when I was seven years old, leaving us penniless and at risk of becoming homeless, it was a local Labour councillor – the late, great Bill Bellerby, whose 100th birthday we all celebrated in this very room – who stood up for our family and my mum, and found us a permanent council home on the Bellfields estate.”

She also talked of being bullied at secondary school, where she went home “beaten and bruised”, and how from a young age she had to work odd-jobs to “make ends meet”, including being a toilet cleaner on cross-channel ferries.

Clashes with Corbyn over her support for a second referendum were well documented in the runup to the general election in December 2019. She was one of the first senior Labour figures to say she would actively campaign for remain.

She said that as Labour leader she would focus on battling the impact of Brexit, fighting for economic justice, strengthening public services, standing up to dictators abroad and saving the world from climate change.

Restoring the party in towns, smaller cities, regions and our devolved nations would also be a focus, she said, describing them as “shamefully neglected”.

Thornberry failed her 11-plus exam and went to a secondary modern school. After her A-levels she studied law at the University of Kent in Canterbury and called to the bar at Gray’s Inn, specialising in human rights. Her husband is high court judge Sir Christopher Nugee.

Long-Bailey, who has come both first and second in polling so far, ramped up her campaign on Friday with a scheduled campaign launch in Manchester and other media appearances.

In an interview with the website Joe, she lamented the lack of an overarching message in Labour’s election campaign – and said she wished she had been more “shouty” in some political debates.

The shadow business secretary said Labour had been unable to compete with the clarity of Boris Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” slogan.

“We didn’t have that message. We couldn’t package everything that we believed in and all our great policies into one message that said look: we’re aspirational; if you’re aspirational, we’ll help you achieve that,” she said.