By giving Jeremy Corbyn “10 out of 10” for his leadership of the Labour Party, Rebecca Long-Bailey declared herself as the “continuity candidate” in the race to become his successor.
Certainly the left of the Labour Party sees it that way. The MP for Salford and Eccles not only has the support of Mr Corbyn, who refers to her affectionately as “our Becky”, but also enjoys endorsements from other prominent left-wingers such as John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Richard Burgon.
She is the choice of Momentum, the hard-left Labour grass roots organisation, and of many of the unions, including Unite, Aslef, the Fire Brigades Union, the Communication Workers Union and the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (though not Unison, which supports her rival Sir Keir Starmer).
At the time of writing, the 40-year-old former solicitor and shadow business secretary was leading Sir Keir in the polls by 42 per cent against 37 per cent, though he remains the bookies’ favourite.
She was on course for a win but then there was a hiccup. The Red Roar, a left-wing gossip website, published the contents of a statement she had presented to priests of the Diocese of Salford ahead of the 2019 general election.
She openly professed her Catholicism and said her education at Chester Catholic High School had “instilled the moral values in me to care and look after the people around me, as we all should”.
“It was a vital part of my spiritual and moral journey growing up and that is why I now send my child to a Catholic school, so that he can also have that spiritual support and guidance from our community as he grows up,” she wrote.
“My Catholic faith has taught me that the only society we should be striving for is one based on love. A society that cares for everyone, where compassion is built into our culture, to help those who suffer, be patient with those who don’t agree with us, forgive those who have wronged us even if it’s the most difficult thing to do and essentially to treat others as we would treat ourselves, equally and fairly.
“My faith is often the only thing that keeps me going,” she continued. “In those quiet moments before sleep every night, I always pray for help and strength in doing the right thing, making the right decisions and making my time worthy of helping those around me as I truly want to.”
This alone would have been enough to infuriate the ideologically anti-Catholic factions of a Labour movement which for a long time has refused to “do God”. But what was beyond the pale was the unease she went on to express about abortion, most notably about the different time limits for non-disabled babies (24 weeks) and those with disabilities (up to birth).
“I personally do not agree with this position and agree with the words of the Disability Rights Commission that ‘the context in which parents choose whether to have a child should be one in which disability and non-disability are valued equally’,” she said.
Let’s be clear: Long-Bailey is not pro-life. Although she has voted for abortion on fewer occasions than any of the four other leadership candidates (three abstentions from five), she “unequivocally” supports the right to choose and voted to impose an extreme abortion law on Northern Ireland.
She also supports the Labour manifesto pledge to decriminalise abortion. It is unclear how this would work in practice, but it could potentially lead to abortion on demand up to birth – a grotesque equality for disabled and non-disabled alike.
Yet for her just to express a distaste for abortion, along with the view that people with pro-life convictions could hold public office, was enough to send some within the Labour ranks incandescent. They included Paul Mason, the former BBC journalist. “I don’t want Labour’s policy on reproductive rights dictated by the Vatican, thanks,” he tweeted, later adding: “There’s no place for the misogynistic thugs of the Vatican in Labour politics.”
Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow and an abortion campaigner, reacted by urging members to drop their support for Long-Bailey. “Help make sure the next Labour leader is at the front of the fight, not missing in action,” she said.
Sir Keir, meanwhile, used Twitter to reassure the party of his abortion credentials. “I firmly believe in a woman’s right to choose and stand with those campaigning to defend and extend this right,” he said. Sir Keir, by the way, is also in favour of assisted suicide, whereas Long-Bailey has voted against it.
In some ways, such divisions can be seen as a spat between the “woke”, middle-class Islington faction of Starmer, Creasy and co and those who adhere more to the old-school Labour values of the heartlands – the people whom the party needs to win back if it hopes to return to power within the next decade. The latter includes many northern and Scottish Catholics who might draw solace from the election of Long-Bailey, because it would offer reassurance that people with some Christian values can still succeed in public life.
That said, the kind of Catholicism Long-Bailey represents is confused, contradictory and spiritually dangerous. She has a long way to travel before she scores top marks for the successful integration of her faith with her politics.
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