The latest thoughts from our mystery Labour MP
With the elections behind us, Labour attention will shift rapidly to the change in leadership. It’s now generally accepted that there will either be no leadership contest or a Brown-McDonnell contest.
There have been manoeuvres behind the scenes on the union side over this. The TGWU and Amicus leaderships see the McDonnell challenge as a distraction from the job of getting a good start with Gordon, but many activists disagree, and if McDonnell does get the 44 signatures needed there will be a serious push in the big unions to push their leadership into endorsing him.
The outcome will nonetheless be somewhere between an easy Brown victory and a crushing Brown victory, since McDonnell’s potential supporters in the membership have mostly disenfranchised themselves by leaving the party. It is possible to join and get an immediate vote, and the party will be inviting people to do exactly that in a campaign in the coming week, but it’s very unlikely that enough left-wingers will do so to make a difference.
The deputy leadership is much, much harder to call. Everyone agrees that Alan Johnson has plenty of signatures. The rest have been hampered by a large wait-and-see group of MPs who have been telling several candidates that they will ‘probably’ or ‘possibly’ nominate them. That’s why you haven’t seen anyone come up with the magic 44.
That will change in the next week. If Tony triggers the contest on Thursday, as most people expect, the NEC will meet by Friday and there will then be three working days to get nominations in. As MPs are mostly in the constituencies until Monday, the phone lines will be ablaze over the weekend. The party will update the situation daily on the website, so people who want to back a winner can hold back to see how it’s going.
Some candidates are clearly very close to the 44. Harriet Harman has been running hard and is in the high 30s, as is Peter Hain. Hilary Benn is leading the polls of members but is well back in nominations, giving wavering MPs a dilemma. Do they nominate him to avoid annoying members, even if they don’t actually think he’s the best choice?
Jon Cruddas had a flying start but seems to have lost some momentum. He’s not doing well in constituency polls, but he’s got the biggest unions ready to endorse him. The problem about the union vote is that, to take part at all, members have to sign a statement saying they support Labour and no other party, and in the present climate that may well depress turnout in the union section.
The dark horse is Hazel Blears, who knows the party well enough not to be standing at all if she wasn’t confident of getting enough nominations. As some of Harriet’s support is simply on the basis of gender balance, an early Hazel push with 30-odd nominations could easily siphon off some of Harriet’s nominees. Hain’s support looks more solid, boosted by Northern Ireland. Many MPs feel it’d be nice to have someone who has had a recent unqualified success – we’ve been a little short of them lately.
What about the public view? Most people know little or nothing about most of the candidates and the deputy position is usually more important for internal party morale, so wide voter appeal isn’t likely to be decisive.
The most likely ballot paper therefore looks like Blears, Cruddas, Hain and Johnson, plus maybe Benn. Alan Johnson will make a splash with the largest number of signatures, quite possibly 80 or more. A left-of-centre candidate seems likely to make the last two, presumably Hain (or Benn, if he does get onto the ballot, though he’s actually a centrist).
As for the more “establishment” options, Johnson is widely liked and the original “safe pair of hands”, while Blears is cheerful (an important asset in these difficult times) and female. The dynamics of the race will change attitudes and it’s hard to call the final outcome, but Johnson and Hain look marginally the most likely.