Unite the Union, the powerful workers’ body which provided the organisational muscle to outgoing Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, has declared its support for Rebecca Long Bailey as his successor.
The expected move will cement the shadow business secretary’s reputation as the figure most likely to stick to the same path as Mr Corbyn, who led Britain’s main opposition party to its worst defeat in 80 years in December’s general election.
Although Ms Long Bailey insists that she is an independent-minded politician she recently claimed that Mr Corbyn’s four-year leadership deserved “10 out of 10”.
Like many “Corbynistas”, she has argued that the party’s electoral mauling in December — when it lost scores of seats across its old manufacturing heartlands — was more because of the influence of Brexit than the party’s radical agenda of widespread nationalisation and much higher tax and spending.
The four remaining candidates in the contest have already won the support of more than 22 signatures of Labour MPs. They now need to secure the backing of either 33 constituency Labour parties or three affiliates, such as unions, that make up at least 5 per cent of affiliate membership to get on to the final ballot of the membership.
Winning the backing of Unite, the largest donor to the Labour party, means that Ms Long Bailey is now all but certain to make the final ballot, where she will face Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer.
The fourth candidate, Emily Thornberry, does not yet have the support of any affiliates and is trying to secure enough CLPs to squeeze through.
Unite, which represents workers in many industries, not only provided backing to Mr Corbyn when he first ran for the leadership in 2015 but also gave him crucial political support during the ensuing civil war between left-wingers and moderates in the party.
Andrew Murray, Unite’s chief of staff, has been a part-time adviser to Mr Corbyn while general secretary Jennie Formby is a former political adviser at the union. Meanwhile Karie Murphy, ex-chief of staff to Mr Corbyn, is a close friend of Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite.
Ms Long Bailey angered some senior Unite figures in the new year by denying Ms Murphy a role on her leadership campaign.
But she won the union’s backing after a hustings it held on Friday. Mr McCluskey said the Salford MP was the only candidate with the “brains and brilliance” to defeat prime minister Boris Johnson.“She is standing for unity, socialism and the determination to make Johnson’s term in office shortlived,” he said.
Unite gave its backing to Richard Burgon, another “Corbynista”, to run for the deputy leadership.
The announcement means that the three most influential unions have all picked different candidates to replace Mr Corbyn.
Unison, the public sector union, is supporting shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir, while the industrial GMB has swung behind Ms Nandy, MP for Wigan. Both are backing Angela Rayner to be deputy leader.
Ms Long Bailey was only elected in 2015 but rose rapidly through the ranks, joining the shadow cabinet after a mass rebellion against Mr Corbyn in 2016.
She has unnerved centrist MPs by backing open selections for MPs, a policy that would make it more likely for them to lose their jobs.
Yet she has sought to end the turbulence of the Corbyn era by promising to bring back former rebels on to the front benches and end the factional infighting in the party. She has also promised to be tougher on security, suggesting — unlike Mr Corbyn — that she would be willing to use the Trident nuclear deterrent as prime minister.