- Interview by
- Ronan Burtenshaw
Last month, Rebecca Long-Bailey launched her campaign for leadership of the Labour Party inTribune. Contrary to media reports, this was not a first. Aneurin Bevan had done the same in 1955.
Long-Bailey is a far less established figure in Labour politics than Bevan was then, or even than Jeremy Corbyn was in 2015. As an MP she has largely shunned the limelight in favour of policy development — most notably in the form of Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution.
But in this year’s campaign, she is the standard bearer of the Left. To her critics, this makes her a ‘continuity Corbyn’ candidate. To her supporters, this makes her the hope that socialism can be kept alive after December’s defeat.
In this interview, Long-Bailey discusses her background, her path into politics, her campaign — and the reasons she believes she can become Labour’s next prime minister.
I want to start by asking you about your roots. You spoke at your launch about growing up in a union household in Trafford Park. How did this shape your life and political outlook?
My mum and dad were political. We always discussed about politics in our house, I was encouraged to read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists when I was young, and I learned the realities of life quickly. My dad was a union man and I was born in 1979, the year that our economy was completely overhauled under Margaret Thatcher. My dad used to say that in Manchester in the sixties and seventies, you’d walk out of one job and into another — and they’d always be well paid. That changed after 1979.
When I was about 8 or 9-years-old the docks where my dad worked in Barton closed. He got a job at Shell and we had to move to a village not far from Ellesmere Port. He felt like he won the lottery the day he got that job, he told me, because it was a well-paid job with a really strong unionised workforce. He was lucky because when Barton shut he was asked if he wanted to move — if he hadn’t agreed to it, he wouldn’t have had a job and we would have really struggled as a family.
But even at Shell the drive was on to whittle down the wages of older colleagues who were part of the union. Decent terms and conditions were being replaced by part-time, casual work. For my dad, as a union rep, it was very upsetting. He never used to tell me about how bad things were but when he came home from a shift I would sit at the top of the stairs and listen.
One particular time, after we’d moved, he came home from work and burst into tears. As the union rep, he knew there were redundancy consultations going on and individual employees were being brought in to see management. One by one, he had to sit there and watch his colleagues walking out with a bin liner, in bits because they had lost their jobs. He was waiting for the management to come and tell him next. He struggled quite badly after that.
Later, I started my first Saturday job in a pawn shop. That’s when I saw people coming in and pawning in their treasured possessions. My family had been to a pawn shop too, which we kept secret because we were proud and would never have wanted anybody to know. I became quite angry at the age of 16 that we had one of the richest economies in the world, yet we had people selling their things just to get food to get through the next week. My politics evolved after that.
My parents had pushed me, they didn’t want me to suffer the same insecurity that they had. The only way they could see out was education. My mum, I remember, one day said: ‘Rebecca, you can be a doctor or a lawyer’. They were the only two jobs that she knew about, really, that were steady because my mum and dad didn’t have an education.
I was the first to go to university. After that I decided to work and study part-time to become a lawyer. I did well and was proud of what I’d achieved. But I also realised a lot of people I knew were just as clever as me but weren’t as successful. It wasn’t because they hadn’t worked hard. They had — they just didn’t get the chance.
How did you first become active in politics? Was it just a natural progression into the Labour Party, coming from a background like that, or was there a particular moment that politicised you?
In 1997 I remember we did a mini-election in school and I was the Labour Party candidate. I went to the party campaign office and got rolls of stickers. I basically bribed all of the kids in the school with free stickers, and eventually they voted Labour. I think I told them we were going to save the dolphins as well!
That was my first taste of politics. After that, my job really was to get on in life. I went to university and looked at all the different clubs you could be involved in. I remember looking at Labour and other political societies and just not being interested. That was the first year the Labour government brought tuition fees in, which didn’t give me a good impression — despite some of the great things we did when we were in power.
My path into politics really began when we lost the 2010 general election. My mum said we need to go to a Labour Party meeting. She was driving my dad crazy around the house — she doesn’t have hobbies like knitting or anything like that, politics is her hobby! I said to her, ‘Mum, I’ll come with you and when you’ve made some friends, I’ll leave you to it.’ I went to that first meeting and I remember one of the other members saying that we needed to means-test hospital meals, and a few others agreed with him. I came home raging and thought ‘if this is the future, we’re all doomed!’
That’s where it started. I had been doing work for the NHS and could see what was happening. The government had bought out plans to completely restructure the NHS, and I could see that the direction of travel was privatisation by stealth, so that most people didn’t understand that it was happening. That is still the plan today, and I started campaigning locally on the NHS. Eventually one of my friends said, ‘why don’t you become an MP?’ I laughed and said ‘don’t be daft’. They insisted, and I started thinking about it and realised that if I was serious about the crisis of capitalism and what we need to do to build a socialist economy, I’d have to become involved. That meant being an MP. Now it means becoming prime minister.
I want to ask you a bit about those politics. You mentioned socialism, and it was also a feature of your Tribune launch article. In fact, maybe unsurprisingly given the party’s left-wing membership, every leadership candidate has described themselves as a socialist. What does socialism mean to you?
We’ve got to recognise that the neoliberal school of thought is coming to an end. There’s been a shift in thinking about the role of government and the need to invest in the economy. Investing in the economy doesn’t just mean investing in infrastructure or industry. It means investing in people and realising their aspiration — those who create that prosperity should have a share in that prosperity. It shouldn’t be faceless shareholders through high frequency derivative trading, it should go into the pockets of those who work for it and their communities.
Socialism, to me, means aspiration. That every economic decision that government makes should be for the betterment of its people. But it also means a democratic economy. Workers and communities should own or have a stake in the businesses, the community organisations, and the public services that are part of their lives. That is socialism in its truest form.
That’s interesting, because you’ve spoken a lot in the early weeks of your campaign about the need for a democratic revolution. Why do you think there is such a democratic deficit in Britain today? And what would a really democratic society look like, in your view?
Over the past forty years when Britain became a service economy, there was a boom in the financial sector, and a lot of wealth was sucked down towards London. Many of our regions and nations suffered and never really recovered from it. People are angry because they see such prosperity elsewhere that isn’t replicated in their own communities — and they ask why that is.
They also see this in politics, where huge amounts of power is concentrated in Westminster and it seems as if decisions are taken a long way away their everyday lives. We tried devolution, but even then, the Scottish and Welsh parliaments paled in comparison to the power of Westminster and the influence it had over people’s lives.
We need a system that is genuinely democratic and representative of our communities. That isn’t an unelected House of Lords, where its members feel absolutely no accountability to the public. A system like that symbolises the problem. That’s why I’ve talked about the need to replace it with a new senate elected on a regional basis and based outside of London.
You see how deep the democratic crisis goes in the vote to leave the European Union. One of the arguments that resonated most was that laws were being made far away from them that impacted their lives, but with little say for their communities. It’s time for a democratic reset, which includes a discussion about local authorities and the powers that they have, devolution, and Westminster itself.
The Green Industrial Revolution is probably the policy most associated with you and your time as Shadow Business Secretary. How do you see that fitting into your broader vision of a democratic revolution?
With the Green Industrial Revolution we were starting with a blank canvas. We had plans to set up businesses, cooperatives, social enterprises. The aim was to give workers a stake in their future while fighting the climate crisis. Democratic ownership means workers having more of a stake in the companies they run. Since the 1980s there has been a culture of short-termism developed in many corporate boardrooms, where they look for the quick profit without looking at the long-term vision. With the Green Industrial Revolution, we knew we’d need to invest a bit more in the first five years but also that we’d get more in the long-term.
You can see in cooperatives right across the world that a workforce that’s directly engaged and has a stake in their company is more willing to pull together and do things for the collective good. We have so many of those companies here in Britain, quite frankly, and we need to champion those as a Labour Party, to show people how it can be done.
Clearly, one analysis of why Labour lost so heavily in December is that it had lost touch with its roots, some of those communities who didn’t feel that democracy was working for them. If you were leading the Labour Party, what would you do to get back in touch with the places we lost?
There are a number of things we need to recognise that we didn’t get right. First of all, it was a Brexit election. We did try to bring together those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain. But that didn’t work, and people didn’t trust us as a result. Many of our Leave voters thought we were trying to overturn the result of the referendum, and many of our Remain voters thought that we didn’t go far enough in trying to maintain the link with the European Union. The result was a disaster.
We didn’t speak in a way that resonated, particularly with postindustrial communities, even though we had fantastic policies. There was a failure of messaging. We talked about protecting the most vulnerable — almost as if we were saving people from the economy. I often thought, well, how would I feel as someone not involved in politics if the Labour Party was telling me that I needed to be saved. I don’t think I would have been best pleased.
What we could have done — and it was right there for the taking with the Green Industrial Revolution — was talk about aspiration. We should have talked about how a Labour government could make lives so much better in postindustrial communities. Yes, people should be proud of what they themselves have achieved in their lives, but we want to fight to make sure their children’s lives are better than theirs. That’s what we’ve always been about.
But we didn’t only lose in England and Wales. We also need to talk about Scotland. Some of the same issues about deindustrialisation apply, and the need to show that commitment to aspiration. But equally we’ve got to recognise that Labour lost trust over a long period of time. We ceased to appear like we were offering people that vision of the future — and were replaced by the SNP, with a new offer, selling a nationalist message.
What we need to do now in Scotland is ensure that people feel that they’re in control of their own destiny. They can’t feel that at the bottom of a hierarchy with Westminster and the south of England at the top — and that applies to Wales too. People need to feel that they’ve got enough political and economic power to establish themselves in their own right. I’ll always fight for the union, but unless we make the people of Scotland and the people of Wales feel like they’re in control, with governments that have sufficient powers to ensure that, then we are in trouble.
You’ve said you thought Labour had great policies in December’s election. And a lot of areas you’re highlighting — from democratic reform to the Green Industrial Revolution — were discussed by Corbyn, even if not maybe emphasised so much. Why would people buy into these things coming from you when they didn’t under his leadership?
I’m a different person. I think people want to be proud of what they’ve achieved, they want to be proud of their communities. We need to tap into that pride and show people how great the future could be. We’ve always been proud of our NHS, it’s the greatest gift we ever gave to the world. Why can’t we build more amazing public services and improve our living standards?
That’s what my message is. It’s about achieving that quality of life and making sure that every part of the economy is there to improve the lives of the people. My story is one that I think demonstrates why that matters. I recognise why people have lost faith in us. We had great ambitions and policies that people liked — but they didn’t trust us. This is the argument we have to make.
Finally, another reason often put forward for why Labour lost in December is that Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t prime ministerial enough. Many of those making that case would argue that Keir Starmer looks more like a prime minister than you. What would you say to those people, who maybe question your leadership?
There are two things I want to see in a leader of our party. Firstly, that they really believe in our principles and in socialism. I want to know that they will protect everything that we fought for over the last four years in terms of transforming our economy. I think we need to ensure that we have a Labour leader who commits to a government that delivers real improvements for people.
We also need a leader who will resonate with people — because politics is more about the ground war than the policy. You have to have the amazing policies because that’s what you want to achieve, they’re your principles, that’s your ideology. The ground war is how you convince people to vote for them. That is about messaging, it is about professionalism, and it is about defining the image of your leader.
It’s difficult when you’ve got hostile media. We need to make sure that as a Labour Party, whoever the leader is, that we are rebutting smears and false claims. We need to have a properly effective media unit. We need to know that we are starting that ground war now and not in four years’ time, to get those messages filtering out into our communities. Together, we can do it.