by Kevin Meagher
Why would a Labour leader, elected as the second or third preference of party members, go on to become the first choice of voters?
After all, coming second in the British parliamentary system usually means you’ve lost. Winning the contest by default would surely represent an inauspicious start to the leadership of an organisation that seeks to win the hearts and minds of millions of people.
The question arises for two reasons. First, because of the unpredictability of the Labour leadership contest. The main evidence about who will win (opinion polls and the share of constituency party nominations) offers only a partial guide and shows no candidate commanding a clear majority. As a result, the mechanics of the process – which candidates come third and fourth and thus see their support transfer to the two frontrunners – may become all-important and is the current preoccupation of all camps.
The second reason is that Yvette Cooper’s campaign (third in the number of constituency party nominations) is said to basing her strategy on precisely this scenario, assiduously targeting the second preferences of Labour members in a bid to “come through the middle” as other candidates are winnowed out.
Perhaps it’s fair enough that “a win is a win is a win”, but doesn’t such a strategy betray a poverty of aspiration? And isn’t there a qualitative difference between a winning candidate leading the pack from the first round of voting (perhaps needing a few more second preference votes to nudge over the 50 per cent winning line) and a candidate who needs large transfers of second and third preferences before they sneak past the first choice of the largest number of members?
It’s an issue in this race because recent Labour leadership elections have tended to throw up clear-cut results.
Back in 1992, John Smith cruised to a crushing victory over Bryan Gould, his only challenger, securing 91 per cent of the votes in Labour’s electoral college of MPs, party members and affiliated trade unions.
Following Smith’s untimely death in 1994, Tony Blair faced a three-way contest against John Prescott and Margaret Beckett but managed 57 per cent of the vote on the first ballot, winning the contest outright. Again, his conclusive victory locked in a mandate to lead the party (especially as he drew in nearly twice the amount of support from the affiliated trade unions that Prescott managed, a fact often forgotten).
Again, in 2007, Gordon Brown was crowned Labour leader after his only challenger, John McDonnell, failed to secure enough MP backers to force a run-off. Was Brown’s coronation a high point for Labour democracy? No. Did it amount to an emphatic victory? Yes.
Of course, there was no similarly conclusive result in 2010. It took four rounds of voting before Ed Miliband eclipsed his brother David, despite his bid having the backing of 18 more MPs and 11,000 more ordinary party members.
It was this failure to secure the leadership cleanly, relying on the support of trade unions in the electoral college system that the party previously used, that did so much to tarnish Ed’s leadership and limit his authority.
The reformed system that party will shortly try for the first time removes this tripartite college (in favour of a truer form of one member, one vote), but the issue of winning the contest cleanly is just as acute as it was last time.
If Yvette Cooper – or anyone else – does eventually win by default, it will prove difficult to make sense of the mandate they have been given. Those who want to quicken the pace of reform will feel just as entitled to expect the new leader to do as they wish as those who also backed them with their second or third preferences and want to tack left.
By winning this way, the new leader will have stooped to conquer but find that by doing so, they limit their room for manoeuvre. The price of being all things to all people is that you end up disappointing everyone.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut