Labour leadership election rules: latest twist in a history of power shifts

Conference has agreed to change the nomination process again. EPA/Neil Hall

The Labour party has voted to reduce the proportion of MPs and MEPs needed to nominate candidates in leadership contests from 15% to 10%. It follows a campaign by Momentum and other supporters of Jeremy Corbyn to decrease the threshold after Corbyn, unpopular with most MPs, struggled to pass it during the 2015 Labour leadership election.

The so-called “McDonnell amendment”, named after the shadow chancellor who was long assumed to be its likely future beneficiary, is strongly backed by the left. The original proposal was to reduce the threshold to 5% but a compromise of 10% was agreed to foster party unity.

Most attention normally focuses on who can vote in leadership elections but the rules on entering a contest in the first place are just as important. When MPs control nominations, it gives them crucial gatekeeping power over which candidates can contest an election and which cannot. Conflict over nomination rules expresses power struggles inside parties. This is reflected in the fact that this is at least the eighth change to Labour’s leadership nomination rules since 1981.

That year began with Labour overhauling its entire method of choosing leaders. Previously, MPs had monopolised that right but after a left-wing activist campaign (including a young Jon Lansman, founder of Momentum), a new electoral college was formed. It split votes between MPs (30%), party members (30%) and trade unions and socialist societies (40%). But to ensure the leader had some following within the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), each candidate had to be nominated by 5% of MPs. When Tony Benn, backed by the radical left, challenged Denis Healey for the deputy leadership in 1981 (the same rules applied), he easily passed the threshold.

Twists and turns

The rules remained unchanged until 1988, when Benn challenged Neil Kinnock for the leadership. The challenge was opposed by most in the party as an unwelcome distraction and Benn lost heavily by 89% to 11%. In response, the National Executive Committee (NEC) raised the nomination threshold to 20% of MPs. Critics claimed that move was designed to stop Benn, who had been nominated by 17% of MPs, from running again.

Michael Foot, Dennis Skinner and Tony Benn at Labour’s 1980 conference. PA

In the contest to succeed Kinnock in 1992, the new threshold successfully hobbled the left’s candidate, Ken Livingstone. But it almost hobbled others too. John Smith was the runaway favourite but his main challenger, Bryan Gould, struggled for nominations from MPs who wanted to be seen to be backing the winner. Although Gould eventually passed the threshold, the experience persuaded many that, while it was right to make challenges to incumbents difficult, it was important that serious candidates could contest vacancies following a resignation or death.

That distinction between challenges and vacancies was enshrined in a rule change in 1993, when the electoral college was re-weighted evenly between the three voting sections. The 20% rule remained for challenges but the nomination threshold for vacancies would be 12.5%.

The Blair years. PA

This new rule would be used in 1994 following Smith’s sudden death. Three candidates – Tony Blair, John Prescott and Margaret Beckett – passed the threshold before Blair won convincingly. When Blair stood down in 2007, Gordon Brown went about collecting as many nominations as he could to forestall a competitive contest. The 12.5% threshold proved enough to prevent the left-winger, John McDonnell, from getting on the ballot. Brown secured his coronation.

By 2008, Brown was under pressure. Some backbench critics, hoping to oust him, complained that they hadn’t been given nomination papers annually as they should have. It led to the rules on challenges being amended in 2010 from “nominations shall be sought each year” to “nominations may be sought by potential challengers each year”. That put the onus on challengers to come forward, not on backbench troublemakers.

The same year witnessed the final – and highly controversial – leadership contest in the electoral college. Ed Miliband defeated his brother David thanks to votes from union members, but it raised questions over union power in the party. In response, the new leader oversaw the abolition of the electoral college, replacing it with a one-member-one-vote system.

The brothers Miliband. PA

Many MPs were concerned about losing their one-third share of the votes and insisted on greater gatekeeping powers to ensure leaders enjoyed sufficient parliamentary backing. Some wanted to raise the nomination threshold for vacancies back to 20% but agreed to compromise on 15%. The 20% rule for challenges remained.

Corbyn’s moment

The first use of the new system in 2015 was historic. Corbyn, an obscure left-wing backbencher, came from nowhere to win overwhelmingly. But his victory relied on an enormous slice of luck. Corbyn had limited support among MPs and struggled to reach the 15% threshold. He did so only because up to 14 MPs “loaned” him their nominations, despite not supporting him, to broaden the debate.

Almost from the moment of Corbyn’s election, some of his supporters proposed lowering the threshold to ensure left-wing candidates could run in the future. They knew that “moderate” MPs (and MEPs, who would henceforth be included in the nomination threshold after a rule revision in 2015) wouldn’t be as naive again.

Another controversy arose in 2016 when Owen Smith challenged Corbyn. In the event of a challenge, Labour’s rules were vague on whether the incumbent leader would also have to pass the 20% nomination threshold. The question was vital because Corbyn may have failed to surmount this hurdle, ruling out his candidacy. The NEC narrowly ruled that Corbyn, as serving leader, did not require renominating. Once Corbyn was safely re-elected, a supplementary sentence to the rules stated that challenged leaders need not seek renomination.

The reduction of the threshold for vacancies to 10% is a direct response to Corbyn’s reliance on borrowed nominations in 2015. The left is forcing home its advantage to guarantee it can field a candidate in a future contest to replace Corbyn. It reflects the greater assertiveness of the left-wing mass membership towards a PLP where the left is still weak and greatly under-represented – explaining why “moderates” prefer higher nomination thresholds and the left lower thresholds. Whenever Labour experiences internal power shifts, this small section of its rule book is one of the first things to be changed.