The illustration, with its imagery of the protests against the Iraq war, is the masthead from the campaign website of the only person so far to declare that he is standing for the Labour Leadership – the Hayes and Harlington MP and former Deputy to Ken Livingstone on the old GLC, John McDonnell. With much less being heard about a Reid or Johnson challenge the chances are that he could be the only alternative to Brown when next year’s race gets under way.
Yesterday he featured on BBC 1’s Sunday AM programme and he came over well. He’s photogenic; his voice is easy on the ear; and he is lucid. If he is the only candidate then he’ll get a lot more exposure and would present Gordon with a big problem when the inevitable calls for TV debates will be made. Should the Chancellor apparently give status to McDonnell by agreeing to take part and how would people compare the two?
A big part of McDonnell’s pitch is that he provides a protest vehicle for those large sections of the movement who are sore about NuLab generally and about the Iraq War. Because Brown’s victory is seen as a foregone conclusion many members and trade unionists will give him their votes without the risk of him getting it.
Of course Brown’s eventual victory is assured but a reasonable showing by McDonnell could be highly damaging and could also raise the issue of Gordon’s backing for Blair on Iraq.
McDonnell’s biggest challenge, however, will be getting on the ballot paper in the first place. The rules require him to find 44 fellow Labour MPs to sign his nomination and the signs are that this will be tough. With many colleagues focused on their career prospects under the new leadership there won’t be too many prepared to risk upsetting Gordon.
So for Gordon is it better to have a contest than a coronation? Could he, for instance, encourage McDonnell to stand by enouraging others to sign the nomination?
Brown might judge that the best way of starting his leadership would be with an emphatic election victory. The way he had got the job would be seen to have been fair and all the associated publicity of a campaign might help create the succession poll bounce that his team so desperately want.
The alternative, a coronation, could open him and the party up to attacks from the Tories and Lib Dems who have both gone through leadership contrasts in the past year. What does it say about Labour, you can hear it being argued, that there was only one candidate because not enough Labour MPs wanted to risk upsetting their future boss by signing his opponent’s nomination paper?
The more I’ve thought about this the more I am drawn to the view that Gordon will avoid a contest if at all possible. He’s risk averse and a challenge poses the bigger uncertainty. I do believe, however, that McDonnell’s quest for his 44 signatures will become a big story and that he will succeed whether Gordon likes it or not.
In the betting I’ve invested a total of Â£6 at an average price of 478/1 on McDonnell. I do not think he will win but that price will move dramatically if he is able to run and I should get out at a profit.
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