Rebecca Long-Bailey: Corbyn’s heir fights on all fronts in Labour race
As her authenticity and credentials are questioned, her backers say she is being unfairly treated
Rebecca Long-Bailey’s campaign has been a bumpy one. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images
From the top floor of the Lowry Centre in Salford, a supporter of Rebecca Long-Bailey points at the layout of the old docks. He’s there for her Labour leadership campaign rally and wants to explain why accusations she lied about her upbringing are unfair.
Her claim that she grew up with her ex-docker father going through round after round of redundancies under Thatcher at Salford docks was heavily scrutinised. They shut in 1982, when she was two years old.
The furore forced Long-Bailey to explain he had moved to work at Barton docks, a site not too far in the distance, visible from the Lowry’s floor-to-ceiling windows, around a bend in the Manchester ship canal.
It wasn’t the only remark she made that raised eyebrows. Her claim she was “born to the sound of the roar of the Stretford End” was seized upon as another tall tale. Manchester United were apparently playing away that particular day in 1979.
The notion the shadow business secretary has been liberal with the truth dogged the beginning of her campaign. Certainly, none of the other Labour leadership candidates have been attacked in the same way, as critics homed in on her authenticity and working-class credentials.
There could be many reasons for this scrutiny. To her followers, it’s down to sexism, and the fact her alignment with Jeremy Corbyn makes her the obvious target for a media that hounded him relentlessly too.
“She’s had questions and judgments that wouldn’t have been aimed at a man,” said one Labour MP.
But for other Labour members – and perhaps a wider electorate – there is another prevalent feeling.
People cannot quite work her out, said another MP.
After all, she is the socialist who lives in one of Salford’s nicest suburbs Monton, dubbed Monton Carlo.
“We have got this thing in the north about ‘how destitute were you as a child?’” one MP said.
“We absolutely pore over the views of people’s families and their jobs, like it validates their politics. But when there’s a disconnect, people probe you more.”
Long-Bailey’s work ethic, friends say, has somehow been used as a stick to beat her with.
And even her most loyal supporters would say she has come across as very serious and forensic on policy in TV interviews and hustings events, without the warmth they see face to face.
Long-Bailey has just a month to bridge this gap. She is the natural heir to Corbyn and the most leftwing of the three candidates still in the race, but has polled consistently behind Starmer. Party insiders, however, say the race is far from over: constituency Labour party nominations did go in Starmer’s favour but numbers were often extremely close.
But her campaign to become Labour’s first female leader has been a bumpy one, laced with frustration for her followers.
Rebecca Long-Bailey with Jeremy Corbyn on stage at the launch of Labour’s general election manifesto. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
There is some disappointment among her supporters that more has not been made of the expected joint-ticket bid with deputy leadership candidate Angela Rayner, who is also her flatmate when they are in London. The idea just hasn’t taken off.
The entry of Richard Burgon into the deputy leadership race, who is unashamedly marketing himself as Corbyn’s successor with a raft of fresh policies, has infuriated some of her backers.
They think his ideas, including balloting members on military action and creating a Tony Benn University, trivialise the left and Corbyn’s legacy, sweeping her up along with it.
Another irritation for her campaign has been the perpetual criticism that she is being directed by men.
She has been described as a docker’s daughter, the puppet of the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, or Corbyn, or the Momentum founder Jon Lansman, who is now her leadership campaign chief.
She has tried to make light of it; she joked about even being the pope’s puppet, after her Catholic religion and views on abortion became an issue earlier in the campaign.
She is personally uncomfortable with terminations beyond the 24-week limit in the event of a severe foetal abnormality, over concerns raised by disability rights groups, but has never sought to restrict abortion law on this matter. She supports a woman’s right to choose.
A union source admitted to the Guardian that Long-Bailey had let far too many men dominate her campaign, adding that it was like watching Labour’s version of Judy Garland, being led continuously by male decision-makers.
Yet there is no shortage of people who will attest to Long-Bailey’s hard work, devotion to the party and distinctly low-key and policy-focused form of socialism.
She read the Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists when she was younger, cites her favourite politician as the late Frank Allaun, the MP for Salford East, who she has said was “quiet and unassuming and true to his beliefs”.
This diligence to whatever task comes her way has often led to comments that Long-Bailey is dull. Much was made of her ordinary-sounding “dream Friday night” in her pyjamas with a Chinese takeaway and Netflix.
It’s not all cosy nights in, though. She took her husband to see Fatboy Slim at Manchester Arena and her election soundtrack has included the Prodigy, DJ Format, Kasabian and Mr Scruff. In the last few years she has been to the Kendal Calling festival in Cumbria, including the year American hip-hop trio House of Pain headlined, which she described as her “best ever” gig.
Weekends with her young son and marketing boss husband, Stephen Bailey, might be spent doing what many people across the country do: swimming or the cinema followed by Pizza Hut.
This normality clearly resonates with some and in Salford she is much loved. Chef-turned-councillor Sammie Bellamy decided to change her entire life after seeing Long-Bailey’s political journey.
Cheering from the sidelines of her Labour leadership campaign, Bellamy said: “She inspired me. I’m now at uni doing a degree in politics and eventually I would like to try that next step and become an MP and that’s the inspiration she’s had on me.”
Family friend Ian Stewart, who was the MP for Eccles between 1997 and 2010, said he knew her from union meetings and her interest in climate change was obvious even then. Now, her green new deal is a flagship policy of the party.
Long-Bailey poses with supporters during a Labour leadership campaign event in London. Photograph: Hollie Adams/Getty Images
She also likes to keep her political friends on their toes, adding that her particular forte is wryly pointing out inconsistencies in someone’s statement or actions.
Laura Smith, the former Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich, explained how Long-Bailey had always been a strong support to her and texted throughout the night of the December general election, checking in on the collapse of the red wall in punishing real time.
Smith’s marginal leave-voting seat turned blue again just two years after she had won it on the wave of Corbyn’s popularity.
“She was devastated for me when I lost,” Smith said. “Becky had been in touch with me constantly during the election. She was always listening to me and the concerns that I had over the last few years on Brexit and I know in shadow cabinet she would try to push the other side.”
The pair had connected, having the same working-class background, both juggling politics with young families, and sharing a similar commute from seats in the north-west down to parliament every week. They didn’t go to Westminster’s bars, Smith explaining they both felt they were there to do a job, not get swept up in the “lifestyle of Strangers”, the Commons bar.
They did, however, go for coffee as often as they could.
When Smith was elected on to Cheshire East council in a byelection last week, Long-Bailey was one of the first people to get in touch and celebrate.
Smith said: “Nothing against Keir, but as soon as women go for a position of power or leader people try to make out like she’s vulnerable and being controlled by a number of men. That’s rubbish. She’s a strong person.”
Long-Bailey is not described as tribal but it cannot be ignored that some MPs feel she is in the frontbench bubble.
A colleague, also from the north-west, said her diligence and potential were not in question, but, because she was with Unite from the very beginning of her political career, and then into Corbyn’s team, she had missed a few vital rungs on the ladder.
They pointed out that she did not have a wide network of friends across parliament beyond Angela Rayner and another MP, Cat Smith, and her immediate staffers, because she had never been a jobbing backbencher nor socialised beyond her tight circle.
They also took offence at so much being made of her Stakhanovite work ethic, particularly the story of her staying up all night to work on the party’s response to the finance bill, when former MP Robert Marris unexpectedly quit the party’s treasury team.
“Stuff like that happens all the time – that’s the slog of opposition. People do leave and you’re left being the sole portfolio holder,” they said.
One MP from the 2019 intake said she must have failed “socialist Tinder” as she had never met Long-Bailey or been courted for her support at the start of the campaign.
“Someone must have taken one look at me online and swiped left, thinking I wasn’t worth bothering with,” she said.
Another new MP said: “No one from Rebecca Long-Bailey’s campaign approached me and I’d made a conscious effort to show when I started that I wasn’t obviously attached to any group.
“Not like Emily Thornberry, who must have jumped out at me from every single column in this building to try to speak to me. She probably stopped me about five times.”
Long-Bailey presents the enduring conundrum in politics, the balance between policy and personality. Those close to her are effusive about her loyalty, wit, kindness and relatable normality. Yet even fans would say the intensely policy-focused, business-suited candidate is all that people see.
Born: 22 September 1979
School: Chester Catholic high school
University: Manchester Metropolitan University, studied politics and sociology
Career: Solicitor at law firms Pinsent Masons, Halliwells and Hill Dickinson.
Family: Husband Stephen Bailey, one son.
Lives: Monton, Salford.
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