It’s time the leadership also-rans came clean about their second preferences, says Siôn Simon

It is polite to pretend that there are five candidates for the Labour leadership. But it is not true. The next leader of the Labour party will be David or Ed Miliband. Everybody knows that.

There is an important battle for third between Diane Abbott and Ed Balls. Which latter has a lot to lose by coming fourth. He entered the contest as a leading figure of his generation. His extraordinary promotion to cabinet rank within two years of entering Parliament (like Ed Miliband’s) had been exceeded in its rapidity only by that of Peter Mandelson just under a decade earlier.

Like Mandelson, Balls and Ed Miliband were beneficiaries of the extravagant patronage of a grateful new leader drunk on glory. Unlike Mandelson, neither was initially ready for such high office. In Balls’ case, he was up to it administratively, but struggled in Parliament and on the broadcast media. Ed Miliband was better presentationally, but worse in the department. Both are better now. Though neither is as good in either respect as was Peter Mandelson.

Ed Miliband, like his brother, has succeeded in converting his patronage-momentum into real political capital which should have made him an evens bet to be the next leader. It hasn’t – the bookies put David well in front – but Ed is the better value brother, because evens is the political reality.

The most flattering odds on Ed Balls are 20-1 against. Which was never the plan. One of the half dozen most rapidly-promoted politicians in the history of the United Kindgom, he is in danger of coming fourth in an election in which none of the candidates is particularly convincing. Behind someone who is not a serious contender at this level.

To be fair to Balls, his problem is that Abbott will get a lot of votes in a Labour election simply because she is a black woman. Which is a perfectly legitimate position. If she were an even slightly more serious politician, I would vote for her myself for precisely those reasons. These are powerful positives which it is not easy for Balls to counter.

The best antidote is to be a nice, unthreatening, middle-class white boy like the Milibands. They are so far ahead that they do not have to worry about Diane. Whatever Ed Balls is, though, he is not unthreatening.

It would be a shame for Labour if Balls were to be seriously damaged by this election. His relentless and brilliant harrying of Michael Gove has been a model of how to attack the government. Opposition is guerilla warfare and Ed Balls is Che. In truth, one probably doesn’t want Che Guevara leading the party. And nobody knew that better than Che himself. But you want him on your side. If you’ve got Che Guevara in your army, you want him running the war.

Labour needs Ed Balls to come third. And then he needs to have his hands tied together and be hung from the ceiling on national television and beaten until he admits that he spent too much money and made some mistakes. (Don’t blame Gordon, who was a bystander: it was Ed).

Then the new leader needs to make him shadow chancellor – the top general – and let him run the war. And we need to let him run the war for as long as we’re at war. And only a fool thinks he knows how long a war will be. But I seem to have stopped hearing that we’ll all be home by Christmas.

Burnham, by contrast, deserves to be damaged. He will almost certainly come last. He is the most likeable candidate, the most normal, with the best eyelashes. He has experience and ability. But he has run just the kind of aimless, amateurish, crap campaign that you would expect from a normal, likeable bloke whom you might meet down the pub.  You will not meet the Eds or the Milibands down the pub, because they will be at home making lists of enemies they are going to destroy or policy sheep they are planning to worry to extinction. Alan Johnson should have had a word with Burnham and said “you’re too normal for this game, keep out of it”.

Neither Balls, Burnham nor Abbott is going to be the leader. And pretending that they are is no longer their role in the election process. But the process continues. A choice remains to be made. And these three retain an important role in it.

It is clear that David will get more first preferences, though not enough to win outright, and that Ed will do better on second preferences. Second preferences, therefore, will determine this election. And second preferences transfer more easily than first.

If Ed Balls were to announce that he were stepping aside in favour of David Miliband and ask his supporters to transfer their allegiance, very few would take any notice. But if he were to announce that he would be giving his second preference to David Miliband, and invite his supporters to do the same, a far higher proportion would be likely to follow suit.

Which may well be enough to make the difference in what promises to be a photo-finish. And if Ed Balls and Diane Abbott both agreed to endorse the same candidate, that would probably seal it.

So it is about time the also-rans signalled where their second preferences will go. The tradition is to leave it late, to ambush your own supporters with your recommendation, to trick them into voting how you want them to before they have chance to think about it.

Let’s not do that this time. Let’s have it open, honest and up front, for once. I think Balls (for personal and political reasons) and Burnham (for ideological ones) are both more likely to back David than Ed. My hunch is that Abbott will too.

If they do, David will win. Whereas if Balls and Abbott both backed Ed Miliband, that would secure it for him. It is a very tight race for high stakes, which the also-rans may well decide. The least they can do, in which case, is tell us their conclusions in time for us to think about them.

Siôn Simon is editor of Labour Uncut.

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18 Responses to “It’s time the leadership also-rans came clean about their second preferences, says Siôn Simon”

  1. glassfet says:

    “beaten until he admits that he spent too much money”

    “Then the new leader needs to make him shadow chancellor”

    Umm… I think I see a slight problem there.

  2. Adam says:

    “Abbott will get a lot of votes in a Labour election simply because she is a black woman. Which is a perfectly legitimate position.”

    Err, no it isn’t – it’s tokenism and gesture politics of the most pathetic type.

  3. David says:

    I’m not sure how “the rapidity of his rise mirrors Mandelson”. Hate to be pedantic but Mandelson was elected in 1992 and in the Cabinet in 1998. That’s 6 years. Rapid but hardly as fast as Balls!

  4. nautilusinred says:

    “Abbott will get a lot of votes in a Labour election simply because she is a black woman”?
    What a low opinion you have of Labour members! Many will vote for the candidate who most reflects their views. Most will vote for the candidate of those most likely to win who most reflects their views. Very few will vote as unthinkingly as you suggest.

  5. John Barrett says:

    I think the idea that he (i.e. Labour) spent too much money is wrong. The classic textbook response to a depression is for the government to spend more than its income to make up for the destruction of bank credit by the private sector. There’s no indication that this strategy was wrong: on the contrary, the recent spectacularly good Q2 growth figures vindicate it.

    Don’t just take it from me. Have a look at Paul Krugman or David Blanchflower’s blogs.

  6. I feel like this is a bit harsh. As a keen Labour support who’s just getting into the leadership debate, I started my own blog at and did a few hours research. My response from that is that Diane Abbott is probably the most typical Labourite out of the five, in terms of policy and rhetoric at least, and to suggest that she’d gain votes solely for being a black woman is to give no credit to her or the Labour membership.

    And you’re absolutely right – if Ed B, Diane and Andy all sided with the same brother, they would win… but why should that be the deciding factor? We’re intelligent enough to make an educated decision, aren’t we? So I don’t see how it’s a good thing.

  7. epictrader says:

    A very readable article as ever from Sion Simon.

    I have always believed it was a 2-horse race between the Miliband’s, though I know an SDLP supporter in Belfast – who has yet to be proven wrong on leadership races of any kind – who is convinced that Ed Balls will win. I mention it here only because their record is so impressive that I’d very much like to be mentioned in any subsequent titles to smart-arsery that may arise as a result of the leadership contest regardless of how far-fetched their claims appear to be at this stage of proceedings.

    In any case, I believe David Miliband is the only credible leader. By that I mean he can not only obtain the majority support of the party membership but, also, the electorate. This is at odds with moments of doubt I have about him; doubts which are more to do with the style of expressing his ideas rather than the substance behind them. Nevertheless, and overwhelmingly, I hold true to the initial premise, David Miliband is Prime Minister material. If you don’t believe this, where have you been? Can you really not see it in him?

    If the electorate won’t vote for our leader then what is the point in choosing him or her in the first place? Remember, we are in a party that thought Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock where the answer; and, just to remind you all, they were not.

    When it comes to the crunch, were you really convinced by Ed Miliband over climate change? I know I wasn’t. Nor, it seems, where those whom he asked to complete a survey on that very issue on his website. Just a thought, because you’d have believed that particular issue was an easy one to persuade the public over in the light of apparently convincing scientific evidence. Yet, it didn’t happen. Why?

    In contrast, I think David Miliband made relatively light work of the Foreign Office in pretty tough times for our nation. He remained focused, resolute and determined in the face of a tide of criticism of British involvement in perceived American adventures abroad in both Afghanistan and Iraq. I also noticed this defiant quality in him during election night when Labour were taking a pounding and he came out fighting proudly and passionately on numerous fronts including interviews on the BBC and SKY. I didn’t see anyone else from Labour put in such a gutsy display; can’t any of you remember? If not, what were you doing?

    David Miliband for leader with Ed a close run second place; that’s what the rest of the field know to be true and should acknowledge.

    All in my humble opinion, of course….

  8. AmberStar says:

    @ Siôn Simon

    All the candidates have done extremely well. They’ve kept Labour in the news throughout the coalition’s honeymoon. None of them deserve to be ‘damaged’ for having the bottle to stand up.

    And Diane is polling well because she’s a media celebrity – not because she’d be a better leader than Andy Burnham or Ed Balls.

    Ed B to be chancellor; I’m sure he’d be great but I’d prefer Yvette Cooper for that job. I believe she would be a popular choice. 😎

  9. James Ruddick says:

    A highly amusing article which tells it as it is. Ed Balls still lacks the telegenics – as Hague, Howard and IDS did – and there is something about Burnham which is terminally lightweight (as the piece implies). Abbott has a star quality that puts her in the traditions of Barbara Castle, Shirley Williams and Gwen Dunwoody, but her policy positions make her, in essence, the Conscience candidate, whose role is to shriek warnings to the Captain of the ship about the direction in which the vessel is travelling. So it does indeed come down to the brothers. And I favour David (Ed somehow has the same disconnection and remoteness that you see in yr average GP – an ability to diagnose and treat, but without a shred of empathy for the patient’s experiences). At any rate, the thrust of the article is quite right: It’s time the losers made clear who they want to see win.

  10. Ellen says:

    Are any MPs going to follow Harriet Harman and not vote in the final ballot? Gordon Brown and Nick Brown, chief whip, have said they will not endorse any candidate, but does that mean they will not cast their vote in the final ballot? Jack Straw, acting deputy leader, nominated Diane Abbott but it is very hard to see him actually voting for her in the final ballot.

  11. […] is also why I disagree with Sion Simon that Ed Balls should declare his second preference. To be honest I highly doubt Ed Balls will come […]

  12. ben says:

    so andy’s campaign is third in CLP nominations shit…
    additionally it would be dangereous to assume that balls will be able to continually maul any minister put in front of him, gove has been almost uniquely incompetant

  13. Why is Burnham going to come last? All the polling has him ahead of Balls amongst members, likewise amongst CLP nomination, and Balls doesn’t have a gigantic amount of support in the PLP.

    Balls has run the better campaign and is the better candidate. I see no evidence to suggest he’ll definitely beat Burnham, however.

  14. Roger Alexander says:

    Two millionaire tax avoiders,a token black woman who supports private education,Balls & Andy.

    Surely they could have come up with someone better?

  15. […] August 6th, 2010 Quote of the Day Sion Simon blogs… […]

  16. Ralph Furious says:

    I think it would be a wonderful contribution to the nation if Balls became The Great Leader as it would guarantee that his party would stay out of government for a generation thus ensuring we don’t have any more maniacs like Gordon Brown wrecking the country.

  17. Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor with the potential to become the real thing?
    Look what happened to the last Labour MP who filled those posts, and quake in your boots!
    Until the NuLabor cancer is cut out of the Labour Party it will never be electable.

  18. David Gould says:

    Balls vs Burnham: Battle of the Sycophants

    Kinda astonishing that no-one’s come out against the crimes of the last 13 years. Are they all in favour of war crimes, torture & mass surveillance?

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