Whoever wins is likely to be there for the duration
There’s something in Ed Miliband of the apocryphal academic who when presented with a result he disapproved of, stated “it might well work in practice but it doesn’t work in theory”. More than once, proposals that Ed Miliband advanced had the look and feel of dealing with the world in abstract rather than the messy and contradictory one we live in. The reforms he initiated to Labour’s leadership process are a case in point and his final legacy to his party.
You can understand the thinking. Indeed, the introduction to the Collins Report says all that’s needed: “Ed’s central objective is to transform Labour so that it becomes a genuinely mass membership party reaching out to all parts of the nation”.
The Liberals adopted one-member-one-vote for leadership elections in the 1970s, with the Tories following suit more-or-less in the late ‘90s. By contrast, Miliband was elected in 2010 under a system which gave ordinary party members only a third of the vote. It didn’t look particularly democratic. You can understand the desire to not just match the other parties but to trump them, to engage beyond the membership and reach out directly to supporters too.
The problem with this sort of initiative is that it tends to overestimate the willingness of supporters to engage with the process. Even under the old system where affiliates got votes for free as part of their membership of another organisation, fewer than 9% of them voted – and one in seven of those votes was invalid. Relying on supporters’ self-nomination produces an outcome as representative as a voodoo poll, where the minority who shout loudest dominate.
Some would argue that the Tories’ system isn’t particularly democratic either in that the membership only gets a say once MPs have whittled the field down to two. There’s some merit in that point but the mechanism remains a feature rather than a bug, deliberately designed to avoid the membership foisting a leader on the parliamentary party which it doesn’t want (and, in the event that it happens anyway, there’s an ejection system controlled solely by the MPs).
Labour’s equivalent check in their leadership process is the very high bar required for nominations. While Conservative leadership candidates only require a proposer and a seconder to get onto the ballot, Labour contenders need at least 15% of the parliamentary party at nomination stage – a provision Collins recommended precisely in order “to ensure that all candidates who are put to the ballot command a substantial body of support in the PLP”. Which is all very well until MPs start ‘lending’ their nominations in order to enable a candidate with little following in parliament but from a wing otherwise unrepresented the chance to put their case. That certainly wouldn’t happen in the Tory Party.
There’s no need to go into much detail about the risk inherent in that kind of thinking; the polls so far are eloquent enough on the matter. What is worth thinking about is what happens after the new leader is elected, whether or not it’s Corbyn.
We’ve already heard speculation that were he to be elected, Corbyn would be out by Christmas. Don’t believe it. Firstly, Labour has no mechanism for doing it; secondly, Labour has no history of doing it; and thirdly, Corbyn might just be a bit more popular as Leader of the Opposition than his critics expect.
To take those in order, mechanisms aren’t the be-all-and-end-all. A leader who couldn’t find enough MPs to form a Shadow Cabinet would be in an untenable position. But would Labour’s senior MPs all refuse to serve in that manner, in what could only be interpreted as a massive slap in the face to their members? And once one Shadow Cabinet is in place, momentum will keep it there. But as Brown showed, and Blair before him, it is extremely hard to remove a Labour leader who doesn’t want to go, without causing a great deal of counter-productive damage in the process. Furthermore, unless Labour could show the same discipline as the Tories did in 2003, there’d be no guarantee that the outcome would be worth the pain of another election under this system.
That’s if they could do it. Labour has an abysmally poor record of ditching under-performing leaders. There are several reasons for that. The rules themselves are one. A more collectivist mindset than the Tories is another. But a third is that oppositions tend to do reasonably well and optimists – and politicians tend to be optimists by nature – can always make a case that things might well turn out all right, while their party’s winning by-elections and council seats.
And Corbyn might do reasonably well as Leader of the Opposition. ‘Leader’ would be a new experience to him but ‘Opposition’ wouldn’t. In an era of manufactured and manicured politicians, the public often take a like to one who isn’t – unless and until they’re anywhere near power. But in the first instance, whole-hearted opposition to the government’s economic policies would go down very well with some voters, extremely well with many Labour activists, and may well win back a fair chunk of support from the Greens and SNP, while keeping on board the ex-Lib Dem from 2010/11.
Of course, it might not be Corbyn. Indeed, it probably won’t be Corbyn. Chances are he’s peaked too early and that he’ll either gaffe or at least one of the others will find some mojo. But whoever it is, once they’re in place they stand a very good chance of serving out the parliament.