THIS APRIL, the Labour Party will choose a new leader to replace Jeremy Corbyn.
It will be an important moment for British politics as it will decide the nature of opposition to Boris Johnson’s Tory government for at least the next five years.
At the same time as choosing its new leader, the Labour Party will also be picking a new deputy leader following Tom Watson’s resignation.
The deputy leader’s role is strange one in the Labour Party. As was made clear during Watson’s tenure, the deputy is a senior position within the party, but because the role is chosen by the membership, the leader of the party does not have the power to fire their deputy.
“Dawn is the last black person left out of the 10 candidates”
Other than standing in for the leader at Prime Minister’s Questions, the deputy role is ill-defined and so can be whatever the post-holder wants it to be. Ideally, the deputy would work alongside the leader and have an important role when it comes to getting Labour’s message out and making sure that MPs have a say in the way the party sets out its policies.
The partnership between leader and deputy leader is an important one. If it works well, the deputy provides support to the leader and does some of the political heavy-lifting. When the relationship is adversarial, as it often was with Corbyn and Watston, the deputy can provide a figurehead for those who are unhappy with the direction of the party.
Before Watson, the post has been held by the likes of Harriet Harman, John Prescott, Margaret Beckett and Roy Hattersley – and the position provides a vital second front as the party tries to communicate its vision.
Without much actual power, the deputy leader gives the nation a chance to put a different face on the Labour Party.
This time, the candidates for deputy leader present a very varied selection. From Rosena Allin-Khan, Ian Murray, Richard Burgon, Angela Rayner and Dawn Butler, there is a range of talented politicians with different communication styles and different political priorities.
The leadership contest looks like ending up a two-horse race between Sir Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey. Whichever politician becomes the leader of the opposition, Labour will need to nurture a fragile coalition of voters if it is to build its way back to power.
The northern working class voter, the metropolitan elite and the urban poor all need to see Labour as the party offering a credible future.
As the country moves to the beat of Boris Johnson’s drum, there’s a high risk that Britain will become an even more hostile environment for anyone who is not white, and the Labour Party will need to be at the forefront of battles against racism and discrimination.
“If there’s one thing we learned from this election, it’s that we shouldn’t take our core constituency for granted”
None of the leadership or deputy leadership candidates has a better track record of fighting for equalities than the shadow equalities minister Dawn Butler.
Since Clive Lewis withdrew from the leadership ballot after failing to get enough of his fellow MPs to back his bid, Dawn is the last black person left out of the 10 candidates. In Allin-Khan and Lisa Nandy, there are other BAME representatives still in the contest, but in Butler, Labour has a committed anti-racist who has also stood up for gender equality, Travellers and the LGBTQ community.
There will be pressure for Labour to take stances which are less left-leaning. Some will argue that the party needs to be more migrant-sceptic and that supporting white working class families in Hull means ditching support for black ones in Hackney, but black voters are incredibly faithful to Labour.
As much as 85 per cent of black voters vote for the party, and if the party loses this support, it will be the end of Labour’s realistic prospects for the future.
Labour’s commitment to anti-racism will be even more important than usual in the coming years. Marginalised communities will come under attack and will look to Labour to have their backs.
Dawn was the first black woman to become a minister in Britain and has held senior positions of responsibility under two Labour prime ministers and Jeremy Corbyn, demonstrating her ability to work under different Labour leaders.
Her longevity in Parliament, being first elected in 2005, means she has a level of experience that none of the other candidates for deputy can match. Having been around under Blair, Brown, Miliband and Corbyn’s Labour means that Butler has shown she can flourish under different regimes, but also means that some members of Labour’s left might need reassurances about her socialist credentials. But looking back over the voting records of all candidates, only Butler and Burgon voted against the Welfare Cap in 2015 – Allin-Khan was not an MP at the point and the other candidates toed the party line and abstained.
As a nation, we have moved beyond some of the binary politics of left and right, with issues like Brexit or the climate emergency crossing the traditional divide.
Dawn is undoubtedly of the left, but has shown she has the ability to work with all parts of the Labour Party.
“I am committed to work constructively with whoever the party chooses as leader,” Dawn said in a Guardian article.
“As deputy leader, I will help build the largest organising force the Labour Party has seen with more trained organisers in communities than ever before, rebuilding trust as we build our party.”
As recently as 2015, Labour took a much more critical stance on immigration and produced “tough on immigration” mugs, much to the dismay of black and brown voters.
Dawn says: “In the era of #MeToo and the growth in racist and xenophobic attacks, the life experience that a candidate brings to the job is clearly relevant.
“The black and Asian vote has long remained the bulwark of the Labour base. “If there’s one thing we learned from this election, it’s that we shouldn’t take our core constituency for granted. We are the party of opportunity and diversity.
“The party that was home to the first four black MPs, which passed the first law against racial discrimination and has a majority of women MPs. People expect more from the Labour Party; they should get it.”
In the coming weeks, Labour members will decide whether they agree.
Maurice Mcleod is the founder of Marmoset Media.
This article appears in the February edition of The Voice newspaper – out now. Download your copy of the issue here.