A win on second preferences is second-rate victory

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

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11 Responses to “A win on second preferences is second-rate victory”

  1. Val Stevens says:

    Just a scare mongering piece. You have no idea nor have I how ordinary Labour members will vote. It may throw up a clear win for one of the candidates anyway including the one that you criticise in this article. The election is being fought like the other elections on a set of rules. You can’t change them now or when you think you don’t like the result. I know many candidates who have been elected because they were everyones second choice because there was parity between the front runners. The only thing other than despair I am taking away from this contest is the determination of the LP to have another white male.

  2. john P Reid says:

    if the leadership is decided by less than a 1000 votes and the majority are supporters,and Corbyn comes within the top two, and various so called supporters found to be not real labour people who wanted to affect the change to help labour lose, the whole things going to be void

    imagine Cooper/Burnham win just,and had the £3, people who were void, had their votes added, it’ll be a case saying how, do region know that Dan Hodges and Co. voting for Corbyn don’t genuinely want him to win, or imagine if the TORIES FOR Corbyn,votes aren’t excluded and Corbyn just wins,they’ll be people saying he won, by people who voted for him to destroy labour

    in al fairness to Cooper as we’re tearing ourselves apart she could be the only one who could hold it together

    val stevens is right, its actually more reflective to get lot’s of second preference votes,it means the majority of the party want you within their top 3, I can’t say if David Miliband my forth choice in 2010 won,that I’d have canvassed so much for labour in the last 5 years

  3. Richard Gadsden says:

    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?

    Not at all. The left-wing candidate will get about 40% and the three right-wing candidates will split the other 60% between them. The system means that they don’t split the vote against each other, but combine back together through the transfers.

  4. madasafish says:

    I don’t know what other voters think, but this whole episode looks like a shambles..
    So many might wonder if you cannot organise a Leadership contest, how can you run a country?

  5. paul barker says:

    Complaining about the electoral system, after you realise the one you didnt want is going to win ? Clearly your commitment to Democracy doesnt run very deep.

  6. David Walker says:

    It feels like 24 minutes into an episode of Bullseye. Three candidates add up to 180 quid, a hostess trolley and a Singer sewing machine.

    Corbyn represents the speedboat/caravan/Austin Metro, or bus fare home.

    “Ladies and gentlemen, what do you think they should do? Take the prizes back to Granada-land, or gamble?”

  7. Robert says:

    I do not know who will win, I suspect it will be very close between Burnham and Cooper coming second, and Kendall coming last. This is totally upsetting all the sites which think Blair would win but he’s not standing or would he want to.

    Corbyn should win this if he does not, I may go and Join the Tories at least then I will be joining the real thing not just a copy which has failed miserably.

  8. swatantra says:

    B*lls! That’s how PR works, and AV. Its a kind of ‘consensus decision’ in which the candidate who appeals to the most of the electorate wins; quite unlike FPTP which twill inevitably create divisions and is polarising, so about half the electorate feels their voice has not been listened to.

  9. Jonathan Grimes says:

    This makes no historical sense whatsoever: Harold Wilson took two rounds to win the labour leadership and yet still emerged as the most successful election-winning leader we’ve had. Callaghan was hugely popular as leader and yet he also took two rounds.

    Neither does it make any sense to compare the big wins John Smith, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had to these later contests: I like Bryan Gould, but he was an unpopular soft left candidate against a hugely popular continuity candidate and Shadow Chancellor; Blair was up against two very weak candidates who didn’t offer anything substantially different, and as there were no rostrum differences from them (the only noticeable line from Prescott being “traditional values in a modern setting”) it isn’t surprising that the party opted for the most telegenic. Brown’s coronation was awful news for the party as there was no contest at all – it was a PLP-election only, against a weak far left candidate, and in effect his mandate was 313 MPs who didn’t even vote for him, a number of whom might have been tempted by David Miliband, who chickened out.

    In contrast the 2010 and 2015 elections are in a different category: both fielded a number of strong candidates from left, right and centre. I don’t particularly like Yvette Cooper’s strategy either, but why should diversity of choice between a number of equally viable candidates imply that the winner “won from default” any more than Brown’s “emphatic” win in 2007 produced a universally popular candidate with a clear ideological mandate? Personally I’d prefer my leaders to stoop to conquer more often since the alternative, Coriolanus-strategy is invariably to launch a completely amorphous, deracinated programme with no real appeal.

  10. In Despair says:

    Kevin Meagher has just explained why Yvette Cooper will come 4th. She just is not a first preference candidate by any stretch of the imagination. She doesn’t stand for anything or say anything (better than people who say two things at once) and has failed to define herself. Outside the activist base, she has very little first preference support from the wider membership and she’s very complacent. Even some people on her team have privately said that she’s tanking which is why they are leaking private polls. Yvette will go out first and take a huge mass of second preference votes with her. So the real question should be where Yvette’s second preferences go.

  11. DblEntry says:

    This is precisely why I refuse to vote for Cooper.

    I’m going to rank Corbyn ahead of her because at least then there will be another leadership contest before 2020.

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