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LAB’s leadership rules will limit the number of nominees and could well ensure it’s an all-female battle

December 7th, 2019

Starmer looks a clear lay to me

Irrespective of what happens on Thursday, there will be some form of Labour leadership election soon. Tom Watson standing down as Deputy Leader (and MP) alone ensures that. If Corbyn does well enough to retain the leadership then the contest to be his deputy becomes a contest to be heir-apparent; if not, we get the full-blown leadership contest more-or-less straight away.

A few notes of caution first. The election may well not be immediately. If Johnson forms a new government but with a sufficiently slim majority (or with no majority at all), there’s a fair chance that Labour could try to disrupt the passage of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement further, which is best done if senior Shadow Cabinet members are not at each others’ throats.

Similarly, there’s a chance that the election could be delayed if Labour does form a government: holding the contest while trying to settle down into government, embark on a Brexit renegotiation and launch a radical domestic agenda is best not done concurrently with an internal contest – though it couldn’t be delayed indefinitely. The summer would be best.

However, while polls can be wrong and events can change opinion, as things stand, Labour will be remaining on the opposition benches. If so, current assumptions about how that election might play out are missing some crucial details.

When Labour changed the rules on nominations, lowering the threshold for candidates from 15% of MPs (and MEPs, if there still are any), to 10%, this was widely reported as a relaxing of the qualification. Yes and no. It will certainly make it easier for one – or maybe two – candidates to gain the required number of MPs’ signatures but that was not the only change made. In addition, in order to be validly nominated, a candidate must also receive:
– 5% or more of CLPs (Constituency Labour Parties) i.e. 33+, or
– At least 3 affiliates, including at least 2 trade unions, comprising at least 5% of the affiliated membership.

These may not sound particularly onerous for serious candidates but they are. In 2015, both Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper would have failed the affiliates criterion (Kendall didn’t receive any; Cooper did but they fell short of the 5% threshold). Cooper would have gained ballot access on the CLP nominations but Kendall wouldn’t.

One thing the rule change does is put huge power in the hands of four unions – Unite, Unison, the GMB and Usdaw – each of which comfortably meets the 5% threshold: a threshold it’s almost impossible practically to reach without one of those four onside. True, their nominations don’t see a candidate directly onto the ballot paper but there are enough smaller unions and friendly societies that it ought to be possible to make the requirement.

What of the CLPs? Shouldn’t 5% be easily reachable for any credible candidate? Not necessarily. In 2016, with only two candidates on the paper, Owen Smith won the support of only 53 CLPs, representing 8.2%. Had the antu-Corbyn vote been split, it’s highly unlikely that any challenger could have gained the nominations.

Note also that the rules strongly imply that these CLP and affiliate nominations take place before close of nominations – in other words, members and unions won’t necessarily know the final line-up when they’re nominating and could well back candidates who subsequently withdraw (or be split by such candidates that they end up not nominating anyone).

So, what of the potential candidates? The current favourite is Sir Keir Starmer, though the odds of 9/2 rightly indicate how wide the field is. I wonder though. If Labour is elected, he surely can’t contest the Deputy Leader election while negotiating Labour’s revised deal within three months – which means he won’t have the machine or endorsements others will gain, nor the office.

But either way, would he even get the nominations? I’ve no doubt he would be fine among MPs but as far as I’m aware, he doesn’t have close links to any of the big four unions and while you’d think he should gain the CLP support, I have my doubts. To me, Starmer appears to lack both an ideology and passion. In any election, but particularly an internal party one, that can be fatal when his opponents will be clearly from the left and speaking to a left-biased membership.

Even if he does gain the nominations, if it takes much longer than the media expect, that will knock the momentum out of his campaign while handing over the front-runner baton to someone else. (That ‘someone else’ is very likely to be a woman. Given Labour is painfully aware that it’s now the only major party not to have had a female leader, male candidates will begin at a disadvantage anyway).

All of which is to say that I think he’s substantially over-priced. For value, I would look more to Angela Rayner (12/1, Ladbrokes / BetFred), who has been prominent in the campaign, Dawn Butler (50/1, Ladbrokes), who is a close Corbyn ally and a declared candidate for the Deputy Leadership. To my mind, Rebecca Long-Bailey should be favourite and her current best odds of 11/2 (SkyBet) are about right but at half those of Rayner, I don’t think she’s twice as likely to win.

Of course, we don’t yet know either the timetable for the election (it might start next week; it might not be until 2023 or even later), we don’t know the candidates and we don’t necessarily know the rules – they could be changed again, both if Corbyn does win but also if I understand them correctly, the NEC itself has the power to change them unilaterally.

But as certainty firms up, so value will tend to dissipate – hence why it’s a good time to scenario plan betting beyond Thursday.

David Herdson