In the aftermath of Labour’s most devastating election defeat in a lifetime, all eyes are on the looming leadership race that will decide the future direction of one of Britain’s two main parties and — potentially — its survival in an age of shifting political loyalties.
Emily Thornberry, shadow foreign secretary, fired the starting gun on Wednesday when she became the first candidate formally to enter the contest to replace Jeremy Corbyn.
Two other early frontrunners from the shadow cabinet — Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey — are expected to enter the race in the coming days.
Early next year, the party’s MPs — along with “affiliates” such as the trade unions — will whittle down the candidates and put a shortlist to a vote by Labour’s membership of about half a million people.
The process will determine whether the main opposition party moves back towards the centre ground — from where Labour’s most successful leader Tony Blair delivered three election victories — or whether the leftwing “Corbyn Project” will simply continue under fresh management with his supporters insisting the one-off factor of Brexit led to last week’s catastrophe.
The winner faces a daunting task: to have any hope of winning at the next election it will have to cut huge Tory majorities in seats like Nuneaton in the West Midlands that were marginals until only a few years ago.
Labour has undergone fundamental change since Mr Corbyn appeared from nowhere in 2015 as a 100-1 outsider and seized the leadership. During that time much of the party’s machinery — such as the rulemaking National Executive Committee — has been reshaped to reflect the outgoing leader’s “hard-left” views.
By contrast, most of the surviving 203 Labour MPs, down from 262 in the last parliament, are more centrist in their political outlook.
The early favourite is Ms Long-Bailey, a softly spoken former solicitor from Salford, Manchester, who is a protégé of shadow chancellor John McDonnell, a close ally of Mr Corbyn. The 40-year-old shadow business secretary has not declared yet but she is expected to run on a joint ticket with shadow education secretary Angela Rayner who will seek the deputy role.
Her allies reject the idea that Mr Corbyn’s team is pulling the strings, denying a rumour that the leader’s former chief of staff Karie Murphy would help run her campaign team. But she is expected to be bolstered with the backing of powerful leftwing groups including Unite, one of the UK’s biggest unions, and Momentum, the pro-Corbyn support group.
Yet while Ms Long-Bailey may have powerful allies, she lacks the charisma of Mr Corbyn, whose leadership was marked by an almost cult-like devotion among some “Corbynista” members.
In theory, last week’s heavy defeat could render the membership, which has a strong leftwing base, more open to an alternative platform from a rival contender during more than eight weeks of hustings around the country.
Private polling by YouGov, a research firm that regularly interviews Labour members, suggests that Sir Keir is currently the most popular leadership candidate with members.
His decision to quit during a mass rebellion of shadow ministers in June 2016 has been largely forgotten. Since then he has worked closely with Mr Corbyn as a loyal shadow Brexit secretary.
However he is likely to face sustained questions about whether his policy of advocating a second referendum led to the party’s wipeout in dozens of Leave-voting seats in northern England.
While Sir Keir is not from the same “hard-left” faction as the current leader, he is an avowed socialist with a record of campaigning for leftwing causes as a leading lawyer. His last job before entering parliament was director of public prosecutions.
The 57-year-old was on the picket line during the Wapping strikes against Rupert Murdoch, he represented the miners’ union, he spent 10 years fighting the McLibel case and has campaigned against the death penalty abroad. “Half of his work as a lawyer has been pro bono,” says one friend.
On Wednesday he sought to burnish his credentials in a radio interview where he said he was “seriously considering” running, emphasising his working-class background and his desire to pursue Mr Corbyn’s anti-austerity agenda.
The entry of Ms Thornberry into the race on Wednesday represents a potential problem for Sir Keir given their overlapping candidacies: she too is a lawyer from the “soft left” of the party who backed Remain.
But her allies believe she has two advantages over the shadow Brexit secretary: her robust, often witty political persona, and the fact that Labour has never elected a female leader before.
On Wednesday she launched her campaign by revealing she had told the leadership weeks ago that backing a Brexit election would be an act of “catastrophic political folly”.
Writing in the Guardian, she argued that she already had a record of having “pummelled” Boris Johnson when standing in for Mr Corbyn at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons.
The 59-year-old MP for Islington South and Finsbury blamed pro-Leave colleagues in the shadow cabinet for backing what turned out to be a disastrous general election.
And in a broadside against Mr Corbyn’s leadership, Mr Blair said on Wednesday that any attempt to “whitewash” the result would do irreparable damage to Labour’s relationship with the electorate.
Speaking in central London, Mr Blair, whose own old constituency of Sedgefield fell to the Conservatives in the election, said Labour under Mr Corbyn had become “a glorified protest movement with cult trimmings” that was a “combination of ideology and terminal ineptitude”.