Could the Labour Party be on its way to its first woman leader?

The moment that the exit poll of the 2019 general election was announced will certainly stick in my mind for many years to come. Shock, disbelief, confusion – I felt it all as I listened to the prediction that the Conservatives would win what the prime minister, Boris Johnson, later called “a stonking mandate”. As the results came through on Thursday night into Friday morning, it seemed that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour project, and likely his leadership of the second largest party, would come to an end. Though a new leader will not be elected until March, a list of possible successors is being discussed and it looks like Labour could be headed for its first permanent female leader.

Several women politicians have been trailblazers within the Labour Party, moulding and shaping the party as we know it. Barbara Castle led the fight for equal pay within Wilson’s Labour government in the late 1960s, Diane Abbott became the first black female MP elected in 1987 and Harriet Harman, most recently, served as interim leader between the Miliband and Corbyn eras, after several notable cabinet positions. Yet, unbelievably, the party who oversaw Equal Pay legislation, the legalisation of abortion and has prided itself on always fighting for equality between the sexes, has never had a permanent female leader. With the process to elect Corbyn’s successor being laid out by party secretary general, Jennie Formby, the names of several women MPs have emerged as potential candidates for leadership and for the first time, it is looking increasingly likely that the Labour Party will elect a woman leader.

The first candidate to openly declare their intention to succeed Corbyn was Wigan MP, Lisa Nandy. During her appearance on The Andrew Marr Show, Nandy declared that she was “seriously thinking” about running for leadership of the party. This would represent a significant break from the Corbyn era, with Nandy identifying more closely with the centre of the party and with Blairite factions. As the MP for a Greater Manchester seat, which voted 64% to leave the EU, Nandy has long supported the Brexit process, believing it to be essential to deliver on the result of the 2016 referendum. This would of course put her at odds with much of the Labour Party’s membership, but could be a position popular with the public as a whole.

In many ways, Nandy represents the central paradox of the Labour Party. As the MP for a decades-old Labour safe seat, but someone who has grappled with Corbyn’s leadership and the party’s subsequent lurch to the left, she very much personifies the struggle between the different ideological elements within the party. This struggle will likely become central to the leadership contest, as Labour is forced to reflect and adapt its identity in a vastly different political climate. Nandy’s candidacy would raise valid questions about how Labour should relate to its old traditional heartlands, many of who backed the Conservatives in the 2019 election for the first time.

Nandy would likely struggle to break through with the left-wing membership, given her stance on Brexit and criticism of Corbyn, but her presence in the leadership contest and potentially at the heart of the party could give voice to the many communities which evidently feel left behind by the Labour Party. Nandy does not seem to be a candidate who all factions would unite behind, but she represents a key issue and tension, which the party must address if it is to ever be victorious at the polls again.

From the left of the party, several of those within Jeremy Corbyn’s inner circle are being rumoured to be preparing to run for leadership. Rebecca Long Bailey and Angela Rayner were two shadow cabinet ministers, close to the socialist leader. Both represent seats in north-west England, with Long Bailey retaining her Salford and Eccles seat and Rayner continuing to represent Ashton-under-Lyne, despite her majority there declining by 7,000. Rayner and Long Bailey were thrust into the political spotlight by Corbyn, when he named them in his shadow cabinet, most recently with Rayner serving as shadow education secretary and Long Bailey acting as shadow business secretary. Both have consistently identified with the left-wing policies linked with Corbyn and his brand of democratic socialism.

Given that membership of the Labour Party is still dominated by Corbynite factions, the election of either Rayner or Long Bailey – both strongly associated with Corbyn – is a very realistic prospect, with either candidate likely to capture the hearts of the left-wing membership fairly easily. The Corbynite factions are already familiar with both candidates, meaning their campaigns cut through quickly to vast swathes of the membership.

The public may be less familiar with Long Bailey and Rayner than the membership, but both still have considerable reputations and name-recognition among the British electorate. Long Bailey of course stood in for Corbyn in one of the BBC’s pre-election debates, hosted by Nick Robinson. General consensus was that Long Bailey had performed quite well, appearing plain-spoken and genuine, but being (unsurprisingly) drawn into shouting matches with the Conservative representative, chief secretary to the Treasury Rishi Sunak.

Angela Rayner meanwhile, has made several media appearances in her capacity as shadow education secretary. Along with Corbyn, she headed the Labour policy of free lifelong education and retraining, which they termed a National Education Service and which made up a key part of the 2019 manifesto. Rayner’s personal story of how she went from being a teenage mother to a shadow cabinet member has been a source of inspiration and discussion for many, but has led the Ashton MP to become victim to classist and snobbish slurs online and in the media, more generally. Rayner’s excellent way of handling such narrow-minded criticism has, however, made her even more popular and a hit on social media.

Another name being discussed is Emily Thornberry, shadow foreign secretary under Corbyn. Despite having been in his cabinet, and sharing many of the same ideas and principles with the Islington-based leader, it has been speculated that Thornberry would be a more palatable candidate to the more central factions of the party. Having been elected during the New Labour era in 2005 and subsequently serving under the Miliband regime, Thornberry comes from a place slightly more to the centre of the party- however this must not be exaggerated.

The Islington South and Finsbury MP still reflects and holds many of the values close to Corbyn and would still be an acceptable candidate to much of the Corbynite membership. Her role in a key shadow cabinet position, as shadow foreign secretary, gives Thornberry excellent experience of top-level politics and makes her incredibly well qualified to take on the task of rebuilding the party, after its worst result since 1935.

The no-nonsense MP for Birmingham Yardley, Jess Phillips, has been another person suggested as a possible leadership candidate. Best known for her fiery responses to the Conservatives and her ability to ‘tell it like it is’, Phillips will be a candidate known to the general public, given that so many of her comments and speeches have been widely discussed in the media. Phillips was of course a key critic of the austerity policies, which have led to some primary schools having to end the school week early. She quipped that she would leave her son, Danny, on the steps of Downing Street during the time that he should have had lessons and followed through on this in July 2019 when she sat with her son and a group of pupils outside No 10. Phillips’ strong voice has made her widely popular, well beyond Birmingham.

Phillips trod a very delicate line during the Corbyn era, criticising his leadership, but maintaining her prominence within the party. While definitely not a Corbynite, many of Phillips’ policies and beliefs still identify her with being towards the left of the party on some issues. The 2019 election results seem to suggest that a more left-wing approach was unpopular with the wider public, but Phillips could credibly be a candidate to forge a new way for the party: somewhere between New Labour and Corbyn. Though this will potentially be unpopular with the membership, such a stance and approach could cut through with the general public.

The 2015 election for a Labour Party leader to succeed Ed Miliband, saw former cabinet member Yvette Cooper finish third in the contest, behind victorious Jeremy Corbyn and current Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham. Cooper could be considering another run for leadership, coming from a place ideologically different from Jeremy Corbyn.

Cooper served under successive New Labour administrations, as Tony Blair’s minister for housing and planning and as Gordon Brown’s secretary of state for work and pensions. From this point of view, Cooper could revive the more centrist politics of the 1990s and 2000s that led Labour to their huge electoral victories of that era. Her record in the controversial Blair governments may disadvantage her with the membership, but equally Cooper’s work on refugee rights and as chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee could win her some popularity. Cooper was a key part of Ed Miliband’s ultimately doomed pitch to become prime minister, indicating that she, alike Miliband, falls ideologically somewhere between Blairite and Corbynite: a stance that may help to unite the party and appeal to the wider electorate.

Cooper also played a key part in various parliamentary attempts to stop Brexit, which is potentially problematic for many of the traditional working-class Brexit voters that Labour seems to have lost at this election. However, this could help a Cooper-led Labour Party appeal to metropolitan Remainer Conservatives who claim to have felt unable to back Corbyn. Cooper’s run to become leader in 2015 ultimately failed when she won only 17% of the vote, however her parliamentary work since then has maintained her prominence and importance within the Labour Party.

With so many women MPs being touted as potential leadership candidates, it does finally seem that the Labour Party could be on its way to getting its first permanent female leader. The Conservative Party – the party of tradition – has meanwhile had two women leaders and two women prime ministers, while Labour have never yet elected a woman to such a prominent position in the party.

Ultimately, sex and gender are immaterial in qualifying a politician to take on the task of rebuilding the Labour Party, which now has only 203 seats. However, with so many incredible women MPs, Labour has the chance to finally live up to its reputation of fighting for the rights of and opportunities for women, by giving a woman MP the opportunity to rebuild the Labour Party for a whole new generation.



The featured image shows Jeremy Corbyn at the centre, stood behind a podium in front of a red backdrop. On the podium, ‘It’s time for real change’ and the Labour Party logo is on a small red card, in white lettering. ‘For the many not the few’ is on the backdrop, which is itself in front of an old, damaged wall, with large arched windows. Corbyn wears a white shirt, red tie and black jacket and he points off to his left. He is surrounded by people stood up on different platforms, clapping. At the bottom right of the image, Rebecca Long Bailey can be seen, wearing a magenta dress and enthusiastically clapping. Behind her, Jonathan Ashworth wears a white shirt and black suit and is also clapping. On the left of the image, Diane Abbott, wearing a black outfit, can be seen clapping. Others can be seen around Corbyn, also stood up and clapping.
Photograph by Jeremy Corbyn

The first image shows Lisa Nandy, sitting at behind a desk and a microphone. She appears to be in the middle of speaking and wears a black jacket over a white blouse. She is sat on a red chair, in front of a white background.
Photograph by NCVO London

The next image shows Angela Rayner, stood on a black stage and wearing a turquoise blue dress. She is smiling and clapping. To her left, Rebecca Long Bailey is also stood smiling and clapping on the stage. Long Bailey wears a dark navy dress and is stood next to someone wearing a black suit. To the right of Rayner, the arms of someone wearing a pink, red and black floral top are seen, also clapping.
Photograph by Jeremy Corbyn

The third image shows Emily Thornberry, sat reading a newspaper on a blue chair. She is looking up and smiles directly into the camera. She is wearing a white dress, with a blue and white pattern on the middle section if it. On top of the dress, she wears a black jacket. Thorn berry sits in front of a pale yellow wall.
Photograph by Steve Bowbrick

The next image shows Jess Phillips stood in front of a white backdrop. On the backdrop various slogans are visible; ‘Theirworld’ appears with each letter in a different colour, ‘ready to lead’ appears in orange, within brackets and ‘equal status’ can be made out, in the same colour and font.’Their code’ and ‘Girls’ appear in plain black type. Phillips wears a red top and a black jacket over it. She looks directly into the camera and smiles.
Photograph by Theirworld

The final photograph shows Yvette Cooper on the right. In the centre of the image is Ed Miliband and on the left of the image is a police officer. Cooper appears to be speaking, but Miliband looks to the police officer, who is himself looking at Cooper. Cooper wears a striped red and blue dress with a black jacket, whilst Miliband wears a white shirt and black suit, with a light coloured tie. The police officer is in full uniform, including a hat and protective vest, on top of a navy shirt. They appear to be talking on a street; the outline of brick houses behind them is visible.
Photograph by the Labour Party