A Punters History of the Labour Contest. From Callaghan to Corbyn

A Punters History of the Labour Contest. From Callaghan to Corbyn

As I wrote in the run-up to the general election, political betting markets can be lucrative ones for punters. One of the so-called ‘iron laws’ of Conservative leadership contests is that the front runner does not win it. In 2019, Boris Johnson finally put the myth to bed. Labour on the other hand have a different past, much more content to back the front runner and at time they have proved to be coronations rather than contests. 2019 has the potential to break into a civil war for the party.

The first contest to be held after gambling was liberated in the 1960s was in 1976 when Harold Wilson’s reign as Labour leader finally came to an end. His thirteen years as leader had created a number of suitable replacements who now read like a who’s who of post-war Labour titans. The bookmakers opened up with James Callaghan (4/5), Denis Healey (7/4), Tony Crosland (7/2) Roy Jenkins (5/1), Tony Benn (10/1), Michael Foot (12/1), Shirley Williams (20/1) and Eric Varley at (25/1).

Callaghan was immediately seen as the ‘likely successor’ and adopted a Boris Johnson-Esque safety first strategy; refusing to outline a policy platform, refusing to make a speech or do an interview during the campaign. Back then, the contest was selected by MPs alone and Callaghan benefited from a push to ‘stop Michael Foot’, winning by 176 to 137 in the final round.

Labour’s next contest would be in the wake of its 1979 defeat.

Callaghan’s leadership – by bypassing conference decisions and compromising on policy – would stoke a ‘betrayal’ narrative on the Bennite left. A key critique of the party was that the leader should no longer be chosen solely by MPs, but that the trade unions and members should have greater say. Callaghan fixed it so that it would occur under the old system before the conference could vote again on a new system of electing the leader.

Denis Healey was the bookmakers favourite at 2/5 and Michael Foot (9/2) – who was initially viewed by the Daily Mirror as a good candidate to instigate a debate on the left-wing of the party – was joined by John Silkin (14/1) and Peter Shore (14/1). Tony Benn boycotted the ‘illegitimate’ contest, in the knowledge that he would not win through MP support alone.

Healey was not on the bookmakers favourite, but he was the most favoured choice in the country. A poll of national voters during the campaign, for The Sun,  had Healey ahead on 71%  to Foot on 16%. Moreover, another poll showed that Healey was the favoured candidate of three out of four Labour supporters. Narrowly, Foot defeated Healey 139-129 in the final round of voting after a lacklustre and arrogant campaign from Healey.

Michael Foot would lead Labour to a landslide defeat in 1983 and the trauma of that, and the fact that Tony Benn lost his seat in Parliament, gave Neil Kinnock a strong chance to win from the left. Kinnock and Roy Hattersley emerged as the favourites at 4/5 and 5/4 respectively with Peter Shore quoted at 7/1. The new system for choosing the leader was an electoral college with 40 per cent of the votes to the trade unions and 30 per cent each for the MPs and for the party membership.

Kinnock quickly secured the backing of the major trade unions – such as the TGWU – and by July he was assured of victory.Kinnock would go on to become the longest-serving leader of the opposition in history. By the time he stood down, there was the talk of the party skipping a generation and opting for a ‘moderniser’ to take the party forward. Ron Pollard, the man credited with introducing political betting to the public, advised punters to keep an eye out for the young Shadow Employment Secretary Tony Blair.

In the aftermath of 1992, bookmakers reported a number of ‘shrewd bets on the Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Gordon Brown. When the Daily Mirror’s Political Editor Alistair Campbell outlined the runners and riders – he identified Smith, Bryan Gould, Margaret Beckett and Gordon Brown as candidates. Tony Blair, Campbell argued, was ‘a long term leadership bet’.

John Smith quickly emerged as the favourite, when Brown refused to stand as the ‘moderniser’ candidate. Smith opened up at 2/5 and was quickly backed in with a general consensus emerging that he should have a ‘clean run’ at the leadership.

The only other candidate was on the ballot paper was the Shadow Environment Secretary Bryan Gould who admitted he was running only to widen the debate. Gould was a Eurosceptic and centred his campaign on the need to devalue the pound and exit the ERM. Gould would be proven right just a few months later.

Smith took Labour into a commanding poll position. Yet Labour had been ahead in the polls many times during the Thatcher/Major years. As such, the bookmakers remained cautious and on the week that Smith died, Labour was quoted at odds of 8/11 to win the next election outright.

The real battle in 1994 was between which ‘moderniser’ would stand. Contrary to later mythology, Blair was already the bookmakers favourite to take over. In the three days after Smith’s death,  Blair was backed in from 2/5 to 1/5 to be the next leader. Gordon Brown was quoted at 4/1 with Robin Cook at 8/1, John Prescott at 12/1, Margaret Beckett at 20/1 and Jack Cunningham at 33/1. When Brown and Blair agreed on the infamous Granita pact, punters could be confident of a healthy return.

Blair’s victory was welcome news to the Durham taxi driver George Elliott. In 1983 Elliot had picked up a passenger who he thought ‘had something about him’. After a political discussion, he dashed to his local bookmakers to request a bet: that his new MP, Tony Blair, would one day become Prime Minister. 14 years later, Elliot picked up £5,000 in what must rank as the shrewdest £10 punt in political history.

Blair’s grip on the Labour Party ensured that the ‘Next Leader’ market was one best avoided. By 2005, bookmakers were still taking bets on his longevity; offering 13/2 that he would last as long as Margaret Thatcher. By September 2006, when Blair began the lengthy race to find his successor, Gordon Brown was offered up at a value 4/9 with John Reid at 8/1 and Alan Johnson the third favourite at 10/1.

By April 2007, Brown was 1/10 and there was no contest for the leadership. Only the 250/1 shot John McDonnell put himself forward for the nomination but failed to meet the threshold. Brown supporters saw no need in widening the debate to include him

Brown’s Premiership he was dogged by manoeuvres against him which enticed political punters in. By April 2008, Brown’s honeymoon was well and truly over and various stalking horses such as Charles Clarke, James Purnell and Alan Milburn – became favoured candidates.

Milburn was heavily fancied to make a bid in the wake of the historic Crewe & Nantwich by-election defeat. Such was his decline, bookmakers offered 4/5 on Brown not lasting the course with David Miliband the 5/2 favourite to replace him.

In the end, nobody was bold enough to try and take over an unpopular government in the middle of an economic and political crisis. Brown’s departure instigated the first leadership contest since Tony Blair’s in 1994.

David Miliband had entered the 2010 general election as the even-money favourite to replace Brown yet his dithering from 2007 onwards made people think twice about his leadership credentials.

He opened up the contest as the 4/6 favourite with Ed Balls at 6/1 and Alan Johnson was 7/1 (who did not stand) and Ed Miliband at 11/1. David Miliband’s supporters put Diane Abbott on the ballot to widen the debate.

Few expected Ed to challenge his brother for the nomination and it quickly turned into a two-horse race between David (1/2) and Ed (5/2). In a leadership contest dominated by the Iraq War, David remained the solid favourite throughout the Summer and by July remained the 4/9 favourite. However, Ladbrokes identified a trend that Ed was ‘the candidate with the most momentum in the race’ and at the end of September finally made Ed the favourite after a series of large bets.

Ed’s leadership was also dominated by rumours of a challenge from within. It peaked in November 2014 when it was rumoured that 20 shadow ministers were willing to quit and back Alan Johnson to be the leader.

Even the New Statesman dismissed him as an ‘old-style Hampstead socialist’ who does not understand the ‘lower middle class or material aspiration’. The runners and riders were identified as Yvette Cooper (9/4), Andy Burnham (4/1) and Alan Johnson (14/1). As with Brown’s leadership, however, Labour was unwilling to move against an unpopular leader.

When it was Ed’s turn to step down, the bookmakers made Chuka Umunna the 7/4 favourite with Tristram Hunt tipped up as a 10/1 outsider to make a challenge. Neither stood, which cleared the way for Andy Burnham, the 5/6 favourite, and Liz Kendall, at 9/4, to put their case.

Burnham had sought to distance himself from the Miliband era by refusing to take money from trade unions and spoke of the desire to shift the debate towards the North, out of the Westminster Bubble. To prove his credentials to the country, his supporters put the far-left backbencher Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot to ‘widen the debate’.

It was the banality of the candidates, which included the 10/3 shot Yvette Cooper, which made Corbyn a great value bet at 200/1. Corbyn was quickly backed into 16/1 after a run of CLP endorsements in June. A turning point is seen as the Newsnight debate were Corbyn offered a distinct break with the New Labour era. A snap poll for the Daily Mirror found 81% of readers overwhelmingly thought he won the debate – but his odds remained at 12/1.

A month later Bookmakers Ladbrokes finally made Corbyn the favourite. After a flurry of bets, he became the 6/4 favourite and in the end, he secured 59.9% of the vote – a remarkable achievement in a four-horse race.

Since then there have been a number of people hold the mantle of ‘favourite’ to be the next leader Dan Jarvis, Tom Watson, Hilary Benn, Angela Eagle, Owen Smith, Clive Lewis, Emily Thornberry, Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey. In 2016 Angela Eagle and

Owen Smith were the stalking horse candidates put up to test the support for Corbyn within the party.

Angela Eagle dropped out of the race and bookmakers opened up at 2/1 for Owen Smith and 4/11 for Jeremy Corbyn to maintain his hold on the party. A lengthy debate about whether Corbyn would automatically be on the ballot as an incumbent leader did nothing but embolden sympathies for him in the party. The 4/11 became the surest bet in political history when Smith failed to lay a finger on Corbyn.

This time there appears to be much more at stake. The value bets have already been snapped up (I advised followers of my twitter account to back Lisa Nandy at 70/1 on election night). It remains to be seen whether the current favourites (Starmer and Long-Bailey) live up to their the front-runner status as Kinnock, Smith, Blair and Brown did before them or whether there is another 200/1 shot waiting in the wings.

Anthony Broxton

Anthony Broxton runs the Tides of History project on twitter and tweets as @labour_history

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