Labour: Leadership, Policies and Democracy

In May this year there was a General Election. The Conservative Party won a majority and the Leader of the Labour Party promptly resigned.


This is the most important question in all of this – why did Ed Miliband decide to take it upon himself to resign? He was an alright leader. His party needed leadership and he himself conceded that the Conservatives needed opposing.

The present leader of the Conservative Party will have resigned by the time of the next election. The Conservative election platform, strategy and leadership are, if not wholly uncertain, wrapped in the mists of the future. There are three leading contenders for the role, but it is incredibly rare for the Tories to make the obvious candidate their leader. David Cameron was largely unknown before he stood for leadership (some would say they still don’t really know who he is or what he wants); Ken Clarke was a more obvious candidate than Iain Duncan Smith; everyone had expected Michael Heseltine to succeed Thatcher for years; Edward Heath wasn’t even particularly expecting to quit, let alone be replaced by his Education Secretary (who he never spoke to again); the prime choice for replacing Harold Macmillan was Richard Butler (Rab). Anthony Eden did replace Winston Churchill (as planned) but this was hardly a demonstration of the benefit of coronations. There would be a definite case for Labour having a “wait and see” policy on the matter and keeping leader-swapping until at least after the European Union referendum. It certainly didn’t do them much harm to keep Kinnock after 1987; Kinnock’s major problem was that he was wrong-footed by the Tories electing a friendly leader in 1990.

As it is, Labour have torn themselves apart over how best to oppose a Government that they abhor, prompted questions about whether the leader should automatically expect to be leading the party into the next election and left themselves facing several years of having second thoughts over their choice. The only thing particularly in favour of rushing into a protracted leadership battle (which worked so well in 2010) is that the Tory majority may fade away over the next couple of years and leave Labour in need of a fresh leader for the resultant General Election – one who didn’t stand around in car parks in Hastings in front of lumps of concrete.

Miliband would have struggled to lead his party through another election – Kinnock at least made overall gains in 1987, though after 1983 it would have been hard not to – but the only particular reason to have emerged for resigning pronto was one which suggested he would never have made Prime Minister anyway. It was that he couldn’t face the idea of taking on Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions again after spending four years betting so hard at each showing that he’d win the election. Even Major – with his 164 MPs arrayed spaciously behind him – appeared at the dispatch box after May 1997.

Who’s standing?

Four candidates – Labour being a bit of a broad church, they have a broad range of views:

Burnham, Andy (MP for Leigh): Originally accepted as the front-runner. Main political grounding is in health. Flat and a bit unmemorable, though his supporters are fond of making comments easily construed as gratuitous sexism.

Cooper, Yvette (MP for Pontefract & Castleford): Wife of the former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls and a rather more effective political operator. Her strong opinions are more in the Home Office and family affairs. Easy to listen to – not in terms of a sweet voice in the background, but in that when she gets going her comments are expressed firmly, clearly and fluently in a way that grabs the ear. Born in Inverness, of all the unlikely places.

Inverness 1 JPG Inverness. Notable for its connections to people who get to be Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Corbyn, Jeremy (MP for Islington North): The unreformed lefty, with distinctive and long-held political opinions. Brought onto the ballot to widen the debate and has certainly avoided any risk of the three candidates having to manufacture disagreements to make the contest interesting. No high-level political experience, but knows what he wants to do. Mostly nationalise things, get rid of Trident and stop having wars.

Kendall, Liz (MP for Leicester West): Always on a bit of a back foot owing to having entered Parliament for the first time as the Labour members were busy packing their stuff into boxes and vacating Government offices having failed to win the 2010 election. To the right of her party and in favour of being “economically responsible” (read: agrees with spending cuts), so when Cooper made comments about people swallowing the Tory manifesto Kendall took this as being aimed at her. May have been a mistake to make anything of this comment, as it has therefore attached itself to her campaign and made her seem unlikely to open up clear water between her party and the Tories. Argues that as the electorate didn’t vote for a left-wing party there is no point in providing the electorate with a left-wing party. May need a lesson on correlation.

Leicester 2 JPG Leicester. An agreeable city where people live. Has a university.

What’s the process?

The two major parties have different processes for electing leaders. The Conservatives procure a list of nominees who are voted on by the MPs. Each vote on this initial list knocks out the least popular candidate (the votes are separate with bouts of campaigning between them, saving unpopular candidates from wasting time but also requiring candidates to get off to a strong start and maintain their momentum). When the initial list is reduced to two people (assuming of course, this being the Tory party, that more than two people wanted the job to begin with) these two candidates have to broaden their campaign to attract votes from the whole party membership without pivoting their positions too much.

A leadership contest in the Tory party is prompted by the previous leader resigning, either off their own bat or as a result of losing a vote of no confidence. Votes of no confidence are precipitated by 15% of the Tory MPs writing to the chair of the 1922 committee (the representative of the non-ministerial Tory MPs) requesting one. There is no timescale as to how long a period these letters can come in over, nor does the chair keep a notice on his door saying how many more letters he needs before a contest. Iain Duncan Smith tried to set a deadline (which just got everyone to consider the matter and request that he quit), but theoretically the chair could pop up tomorrow and say that since 2005 he has received the required number of letters to request David Cameron to go. (There is presumably a means for sending the chair a second letter rescinding an earlier call for a vote of no confidence and requesting that the letter be shredded.)

Labour, by contrast, produce a list of nominees who have each received nominations from 15% of the Parliamentary Labour Party (their MPs). This caps the candidacy list at 6 (with 10% of the MPs spare); in practice MPs like to nominate people who are already on the ballot paper in some weird demonstration of theoretically irrelevant support, with the result that in 2007 Gordon Brown received so many nominations that nobody else could get on the ballot paper. The consequential list (unless only consisting of Dr J. G. Brown of Kirkcaldy) is subjected to a long series of hustings culminating in a vote on a “one member, one vote” basis across Labour MPs, affiliated unions, the party membership and registered supporters. The Tory system is quite simple compared to explaining the Labour system:

  1. The ballot paper allows voters to rank the candidates in order of preference – in this case, from 1 to 4.
  2. If a candidate wins an outright majority (50% or more of the vote) on “first preferences”, they are elected.
  3. If there is no such candidate, the lowest-place candidate is liquidated and the ballot papers of their voters added to the piles of the people that said voters said would be their second preference.
  4. If nobody wins 50% of votes then, the person who is now the lowest-placed candidate (who may have been third-lowest-placed before and not got very many second-preferences from the original lowest-placed candidate) is liquidated and their votes (both their first-preferences and any inherited second-preferences) are redistributed according to the voters’ next available preference (allowing for people who may now be on their third preference because preferences 1 and 2 were liquidated after the first two rounds).
  5. Unless the vote is exceptionally divided, one of the two candidates remaining should be able to get 50% of the vote and will be duly elected. (What happens if enough people only vote for two unpopular candidates and the remaining pair are tied on 49% is not clear.)
  6. The other remaining candidate is also liquidated or despatched to a gulag in Siberia, according to current Party policy. (Well, given everyone’s enthusiasm for either backing the winning candidate or having a good reason for accidentally backing someone else…)

There is no known means for a deeply unpopular leader to be ejected, except for the deeply unpopular leader to resign or die. This may have encouraged both Miliband and Brown to resign early on a subconscious belief that they had remained in place because they thought they could win an election but that having failed to win they had let everyone down and should compensate for the inability of the party to later lever them out.

Blair was encouraged to depart; his predecessor avoided any embarrassing bickering by dying abruptly as he approached his peak. (Ironically this means that John Smith is the most recent Labour leader not to be subjected to an embarrassing attempt to terminate his political career.) Brown rumbled through an attempt to remove him which was predicated less on party rules and more on a presumption that he could not survive multiple Cabinet resignations calling for him to go. Labour is a tribal party and the person who jumped looked back to see the ship sailing on without even throwing him a lifebelt.

This leadership election will conclude in September (Saturday 12th).

What do the Labour leadership candidates agree on?

Not much – mostly that you should vote for them. Burnham is fond of remarking that the Party is the thing that comes first and Cooper is tired of looking up to remark “No Andy, the country comes first”. Kendall argues that we’re wasting money on debt interest and Corbyn argues that money (from somewhere, although admittedly the current bunch are having no difficulty finding lots) should be spent on growing the economy. There is a reasonable bit of interest in the argument that the winner should face another vote in 2017/8 (in which case Miliband might as well have stayed on until then – the Tory mid-term election in 2003 was a survival move, not a voluntary check on how things were going).

Jeremy Corbyn seems a rather controversial chap. What’s he doing on a political ballot paper?

This question is carefully phrased to suggest that controversial people are not usually allowed to partake in politics.

Corbyn was put onto the ballot paper by people who wanted a “debate” but who were sufficiently interested in the results of this “debate” to say that they were only nominating him, and wouldn’t recommend that anyone actually vote for him. Now that the party is actually having this debate they seem to be a bit scared and are wandering around asking everyone they meet why it was that anyone nominated him. This says everything readers needs to know about the modern Labour Party.

His opinions were known when they started and should have been a known risk. At the worst, we will get a genuinely left-wing mainstream party out of this leadership contrast. Unlike the 2010 contest, it is interesting for things other than “ooh look, there are two brothers called Miliband in it”; the result reached in September may actually have some impact on the political scene for the next few years, on the debate to be had at the next election and on the long-term future of the country.

As a consequence, it is entirely possible that the flood of people joining the Labour Party, suggested to all be Jeremy Corbyn supporters, are people who are hoping that their voices will be heard and their wishes reflected by a major political party. If we want people to participate in elections, not having an Opposition that agrees with the Government (or, worse, a Government that agrees with the Opposition) would be very helpful in raising interest.

Uniquely amongst the candidates, he is open to engaging with Cameron’s EU renegotiation plans.

There were, after all, some 1,157,613 people who turned out in the 2015 election and voted Green – for a platform involving abolishing Trident, cutting cuts, renegotiating the relationship with the EU and nationalising the railways. If we’re listening to UKIP and the SNP, why not have a mainstream candidate who believes in the Green values? Excellent way to neutralise the Greens.

Is Labour at risk of becoming a spent political force if it elects the wrong person?

Labour is always at risk of becoming a spent political force. No political party is guaranteed to go on forever. The Tories spent their wilderness years wondering if they’d follow the Whigs into total irrelevance.

The Tories have a certain advantage over Labour however. Tory voters are predominantly conservatives – hence the official party name. They like things to be consistent. This includes having a consistent right-of-centre party. (9.6million of them voted for another 5 years of Tory Government in 1997, which would have taken the party’s unbroken tenure to 23 years, despite a certain lack of reasons to do so.) Meanwhile the Labour party likes to base its support on the “progressive” movement, which wants change to stuff that’s not working well enough for them (or, on the extreme end of the progressives, change for the general sake of it).

This means that Tory voters will probably, eventually, if the party seems to be engaging with them, float back to the Tory party. Whereas Labour voters will vanish off to the Socialists, the Greens, the Libs, a new Social Democratic Party or, if necessary, UKIP with relatively little compunction. Certainly the Scottish Labour voters seem to have had no problems with vanishing off to the SNP, though we are yet to see if that survives another independence referendum, the next General Election or indeed a by-election. Labour did worse in 1983 than in the Tories did in 1997 on very similar turnouts. (The seat levels held up vastly better for Foot than Major, but Foot got 1.1million fewer votes)

Labour also has various underlying beliefs and principles, not all of which are shared with all the members at a given moment. If they combine the underlying beliefs badly, the members (and voters) will wander off. The Tory party was set up by the landowners and other miscellaneous bigwigs who ran the country for the sole purpose of running the country without anyone else getting in the way; so long as the Tory party has a prospect of being in charge its members are very happy.

Finally, Labour was set up to represent the low-paid labour market in steelworks, railways and coal mines. The steelworks are now largely automated. The railways are well-paid. The miners – well, they were an endangered species long before Thatcher turned up. While the Labour candidates argue over child tax credits, the UK rail industry is storing relatively new coal wagons (with no idea what to do with them long-term), sacking coal train drivers, counting the number of coal trains running each day in two figures and openly discussing a potentially very imminent end to a traffic flow that has sustained the industry since Salamanca hauled her first coal train – also known as the first commercial locomotive-hauled train in the world – in Leeds in 1812.

This also highlights the choices open to the next Labour leader – a labour-based economy will likely inconvenience meeting environmental targets that the party subscribed to, but tearing up those environmental targets will save the coal mines and power stations – and the coal trains. Is a labour-representing party relevant when there are more daily passenger trains on the Truro to Falmouth branch line than there are coal trains in the whole country?

Should one of the “mainstream” candidates pull out to enhance the chances of the others at defeating Jeremy Corbyn?


This idea, which has been floated repeatedly lately, is the home of idiots who do not understand proportional vote systems – and those who want an excuse to make Liz Kendall quit the race.

Because the voting system is based on a series of preferences, a Kendall vote is not a wasted vote or a vote for Corbyn by proxy. A member can vote first preference for Kendall but then indicate (on the same ballot paper) a second preference for Cooper. If Kendall is eliminated first, the second preference will go to Cooper – and count as a whole vote for her, with no allowance for it being a second-preference vote and instead it being treated as though Kendall had quit tomorrow and was never on the ballot paper at all.

The voter may decide not to express further preferences on the basis that Burnham is a bore and Corbyn is too far left to vote for. If this is a problem for someone, it will be resolved by making Burnham say something interesting, not by getting Kendall and Cooper to withdraw. We could equally argue that a Burnham/ Corbyn election increases the odds of Corbyn winning by making him one candidate in two rather than one candidate in four, and therefore giving him odds of 50% rather than 25%.

There is no obligation on a voter to rank all four candidates in order of preference – indeed, to do such a thing would be utterly pointless, as the elimination of the third candidate will automatically make the fourth the winner regardless of the number of fourth preferences received. A voter may decide that they only want to vote for Kendall and if anyone else wins they’re off to the Tories. They may equally wish to vote for Cooper, Kendall and Corbyn. Voters who do not want Corbyn can refrain from expressing a preference for Corbyn. All this is quite respectable. Marvellous thing, secret voting.

But if Corbyn wins he could become Prime Minister.

This is true, but the same could be said for Michael Foot – who led the party to a 144-seat Tory majority.

Labour naturally has to strike a balance between the candidate who will best represent the party and who will get the best result from the country. If they choose wrong, they may well lose the next election quite badly but are unlikely to get an obviously bad leader elected. This is not like John McCain’s inexplicable decision to appoint Sarah Palin as his nominee for the US vice-presidency in 2008. Corbyn – or, indeed, Cooper – would not become Prime Minister if David Cameron dropped dead. That honour goes – at least pending a leadership contest in the Tory party – to George Osborne. Corbyn would only become Prime Minister if the electorate voted for him to do so in sufficient numbers.

If they do, this will be in a belief that his policies will generally benefit the country… well… assuming the electorate can judge a modern manifesto with long-term international implications with sufficient appreciation to decide this. But suffice it to say, between the next Labour leader and power lie several years of being torn at by the Tories. As Miliband demonstrated, if Corbyn’s policies don’t stand up to this people won’t vote for him. (Not that this will stop them telling the pollsters that they’re going to.)

Does it have to be another Jeremy?

Yes, it is a bit strange that Mr Clarkson was sacked just before Mr Corbyn took to the stage with an alternative brand of outrageously popular non-mainstream ideas. It may be that actually Mr Clarkson was a comic invention of Mr Corbyn’s – certainly there seem to be no immediately obvious records of them having ever been seen in a room at the same time.


In the real world of Government, the Tories are planning re-writes of the country’s relationship with the EU, cutting benefits, refusing to let Greece have any money, trying to amend fox hunting laws and denying that they knew the rail network upgrades were about to collapse. On a majority of 12. With several Tory dissenters and the major opposition being organised by the Scots Nats.