Working through lots of candidates and lots of considerations
Calling the Labour leadership contest is hard, to me at least. Not only do we not yet know who’s going to stand but working out what the key considerations will be with the relevant voters – at both nomination stage and in the election proper – is an exercise in second-guessing on multiple levels. We don’t even know when the election will start for sure: it might be next week but that’s still to be confirmed by Labour’s NEC.
Sometimes it’s useful in cases like this to try to break down the election into individual factors before putting the whole back together again, so that’s what I’ve tried to do here.
At the moment, there are four declared candidates – Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Jess Phillips and Emily Thornberry – but we can expect more to formally declare. Keir Starmer is all-but certain to run, as is at least one of Rebecca Long-Bailey and Ian Lavery, and there may be others.
To get on to the ballot paper, a candidate needs support from 10% of Labour’s MPs and MEPs i.e. 22 backers if the deadline’s before Brexit, or 21 if it’s afterwards (when there won’t be any UK MEPs).
One consequence of Labour’s awful performance in the general election is that the PLP remains much less of the left than the membership: Labour only gained one seat and did poorly defending those where an MP stood down or had defected. I don’t see how any more than two candidates from the left reach the threshold.
Nominations: CLPs and affiliates
For the first time, the 2020 election will give Constituency Labour Parties and affiliated bodies (unions and socialist societies) a formal role in the process. While they made nominations in 2015 and 2016, these had only symbolic value. This time, they matter. A candidate can’t reach the election proper without the support of either at least 5% of CLPs (i.e. 33+) or the backing of at least one big union, one other union and a third affiliated organisation.
These requirements play strongly to the front-runners and also to the Party’s left, especially if there are several candidates from outside the Labour membership’s centre of gravity. My expectation would be that the big unions will either back an outright left-wing candidate or Starmer, who straddles the fence between being part of the wider Team Corbyn while also offering change.
The question here is can the likes of Jess Phillips gain the support of enough CLPs? One question that’s crucial but which I don’t know the answer to is how likely it is that they don’t nominate anyone – in 2015 and 2016, close to half didn’t but then it didn’t matter nearly as much. If there are similar rates of abstentions in 2020, the membership might well get only two candidates to vote on. That said, even if there are far fewer abstaining CLPs this time, if the YouGov poll from last July is still a guide, a lot of members would actively vote against Phillips. I think she’ll fail to reach the threshold.
The left vs the rest
As an astute observer of Labour noted, the Left’s natural state of affairs is at war with itself. For the last four years, the civil war has been largely off due to Corbyn’s extraordinary victory in 2015 which made him both personally hugely popular but also the keystone in their arch: remove him and all the power that the left suddenly found itself with would fall apart. Well, he has now been removed and there’s clearly now a divide between supporters of Rebecca Long-Bailey and a growing number of voices advancing the claims of the Labour chair, Ian Lavery.
If both run, they could knock each other out but I’m sceptical of a deal being done. Neither is a good candidate: Long-Bailey is a robotic performer and her Guardian article last week was a masterpiece of meaninglessness. On the other hand, Lavery carries as much baggage as Corbyn.
That means there’s certainly a chance for the rest, and in particular the soft left. The YouGov poll that gave Starmer a clear lead, both in first-round preferences and redistributed votes, shows that the membership isn’t as wedded to Corbynism as policies as it might have been before the election, and that competence and pragmatism look to be taking a higher priority.
But it’s not all about the members: affiliates and supporters
That YouGov poll, however, was only of Labour members and in 2015/16 they only made up 56-58% of the voters in the election, with non-member affiliates and registered supporters being the rest. In both elections, registered supporters voted far more heavily for Corbyn than the general membership and affiliates slightly more. We can reasonably assume that this fact will still make it hard for anyone running on any kind of significant reform agenda.
London vs the country
Almost a quarter of Labour MPs now represent London – there are more of them than there are Labour MPs from the Midlands, Scotland and the rest of the South of England put together – and its membership is similarly metropolitan.
The big question here, in the context of its losses last month, is whether that London bias means the membership will gravitate towards someone who looks, thinks and sounds like them or whether they will consciously seek someone that isn’t like them in the hope of regaining the lost voters and MPs. My instinct would be towards the former: you need both confidence and a belief that it’s necessary to go beyond your comfort zone and I doubt Labour currently has either.
Remain vs Leave
In theory, this shouldn’t matter. Brexit will be ‘done’ by the time the voting begins in Labour’s election, maybe even before the contest starts at all; ‘Remain’ will be an anachronism. In reality, it matters greatly – not so much because of immediate Brexit policy but because of what the candidates stood for symbolises about them and about what they believe Labour should be. Did they openly support Remain last year or did they hedge as Corbyn did? Do they accept the mandate of the first referendum or not? Would they seek to rejoin the EU as soon as possible or let the issue lie? What message would they send to the millions of ex-Labour Leave voters who rejected them? What message would they send to the millions of Remain voters who cast nose-holding tactical votes in December and for whom that reason is now redundant?
Boys vs Girls
When James Callaghan was elected Labour leader, the fact that his Tory opposite number was a woman was a novelty and an oddity. Forty-four years and nine leadership elections on and the fact that Labour still hasn’t elected a woman leader while the Tories have had a second female PM is rather more of an embarrassment, particularly given the stress that Labour places on identity politics. Alongside his lack of passion, Starmer’s gender is likely to be his biggest drawback.
I expect the current field to be whittled considerably. I would be very surprised if Clive Lewis, Emily Thornberry or Jess Phillips made the ballot paper and a straight Starmer vs Long-Bailey contest is entirely possible, though we shouldn’t assume RLB will automatically end up as the left’s candidate. If she doesn’t, that might open the door to Angela Rayner (currently available at a value 50/1), who I rate as potentially the strongest choice Labour could make. If the NEC does kick things off next week then the door to a Rayner candidacy probably closes – Long-Bailey will be committed and Rayner won’t run against her – but if not, the contest becomes much more fluid.
I still remain sceptical of Starmer’s chances, though they’re clearly strong. He might well win simply for want of any meaningful alternative but if there is such an alternative – someone who can galvanise the membership as Corbyn did – then I could well see him struggle. The other bet I think is worth looking at is Lisa Nandy, tipped by HenryG on Thursday at 12/1, who could scores quite well on a lot of the sections above. If she makes the ballot, and she could, then not only would her odds drop but she could go all the way.