The Labour leadership election captured people’s attention when a YouGov poll in late-July put Jeremy Corbyn in the lead. Now, he is the most popular candidate among trade unions and grassroots Labour activists, having been endorsed by 162 Labour constituency parties – ahead of Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall – and by six unions, including Labour’s two biggest affiliates, Unite and Unison.
Yet Corbyn’s lead is by no means unassailable. If one of the moderate candidates in the race is to deprive the veteran leftist of victory, he or she will need to address Labour’s current electoral fatalism and convince members that the party can still end up in government after the next election, provided that it remains united.
It’s useful to look at the Labour leadership race in the context of research on party leadership contests. One theory, developed by Leonard Stark and deployed by me and other researchers, assumes that there is a hierarchy of selection criteria that guide the process of choosing a leader, and these criteria match parties’ three fundamental goals: internal unity, winning an election and implementing policy in government.
Selection criteria in leadership contests reflect these goals. If a party is divided, the successful candidate is usually the one who is “acceptable” to the broadest range of party opinion and can unite the party. If disunity isn’t a major problem, the strongest candidate on “electability” should win. If the candidates are indistinguishable on that, the choice will turn on “competence” – mainly in relation to running a government but also leading an opposition.
Burnham the unifier, but Corbyn still on top
Thanks to YouGov’s poll, we can put the theory to the test in the current Labour leadership contest. The poll asked electors eligible to vote in the one-member-one-vote ballot to state their principal reasons for supporting their preferred candidate. As the table below shows, clear differences are evident between the supporters of each candidate.
Corbyn’s supporters – who constitute the largest group in the sample – were completely distinct from those of the other candidates. Barely any cited electability (winning in 2020) or acceptability (uniting the party) as reasons to support him. Corbyn appeals to those who want Labour to change direction completely, even if it means short-term disunity and lower electability.
Instead, on these figures, Burnham is the unity candidate in the contest, and he also does well on electability and competence. Not far behind is Cooper, and she too appeals on all three selection criteria. In contrast, neither Kendall nor Corbyn is a unifier and both could split their party. Despite being strong on electability, Kendall’s Blairite politics are unacceptable not just to the far left but also to Labour’s soft-left mainstream. Meanwhile, Corbyn would be unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs.
Fatalism and fresh faces
So Burnham should be well-placed to win the leadership contest, but it is Corbyn who leads the race. The answer to why this is so lies in a combination of Labour’s new selection system and an incapacitating sense of electoral fatalism.
The one-member-one-vote system gives votes to party members, trade unionists who have been signed up by their unions as “affiliated supporters”, and “registered supporters” who have paid a £3 fee and confirmed their agreement with Labour’s values. A surge in membership of 68,000 since the 2015 election – a 35% increase – has brought in large numbers of left-wingers and worked strongly in Corbyn’s favour.
This has combined together with a fatalism that has descended on the party after its May election defeat. Not only was the defeat unexpected but so was its scale. There is a feeling among many inside and outside the party that it lost not only the 2015 election but also the 2020 election.
Add to that the sense that none of the contenders in the Labour leadership contest looks to be an obvious general election winner and it becomes understandable why electability appears such a low priority in the contest. Many Corbyn supporters may believe that their man cannot win the 2020 general election – but that neither can any of the other candidates. Voting for Corbyn then becomes a free hit: if Labour cannot become a party of government any time soon, why not make it a more effective party of opposition that takes on the Tories’ austerity agenda and unite it on that basis?
Not over yet
For Burnham or Cooper to defeat Corbyn, they would need to challenge this fatalism by arguing that the next election is not already lost. The Conservatives’ majority is only 12 seats. If Labour could win back just 30 of the 87 mainly marginal seats it lost to the Conservatives in 2010 (and largely failed to regain in 2015), not only would the Tories fall short of a majority in 2020, they would struggle to form a minority government. In an era when 80-90 seats are routinely won by smaller parties, including the Scottish National Party, hung parliaments are more likely than they were in the past.
Labour’s moderates would have to argue that it is important for the party to stay in the game in anticipation of another close election result, and not throw it away by choosing a leader who would split the party, lacks prime-ministerial credibility and has a narrow electoral appeal. It is easily forgotten that many Labour left-wingers – including Dennis Skinner – accepted this argument in 2010 when they put electability before ideology in supporting David Miliband.
Unity, electability and competence are the holy trinity of leadership contests. The polls suggest that Burnham is well-positioned on all three, with Cooper not far behind. To make it count, each must show the Labour party that they can unite it, probably on a moderate anti-austerity platform, and convince it that there is still all to play for at the next election. If they can do that, one of them could yet overhaul Corbyn.