Labour’s soporific leadership election burst into life with the publication of a YouGov poll for The Times, which put the veteran left-wing candidate Jeremy Corbyn 17 points ahead of his nearest rival, Andy Burnham, on first preferences.
Corbyn’s surge prompted a rare intervention in Labour affairs by Tony Blair, who urged his party to remain in the centre-ground. There has undoubtedly been a shift to the left inside the Labour Party on Corbyn’s principal campaign issue of austerity. Nevertheless, the belief among pundits and bookmakers appears to be that he will eventually be overtaken by either Burnham or Yvette Cooper.
In normal circumstances, I would have readily agreed. My own research on leadership elections demonstrates that when parties are divided, they invariably choose leaders who offer unity. The YouGov poll suggests that Burnham is the unity candidate in the current Labour leadership contest.
But Labour’s new selection system makes this election unpredictable. In 2014, the party replaced its old electoral college with a one-member-one vote system, albeit one that includes more participants than just individual party members.
In the old system, the votes of MPs, party members and affiliated organisations each made up a third of the college. In the 2010 Labour leadership election, union members tilted to the left and were decisive in handing victory to Ed Miliband. Union members will again be allowed to participate but this time as “affiliated supporters” with votes equal in weight to those of individual party members.
A new category of “registered supporter” has also been created. Members of the public can pay £3 to confirm their support for Labour’s values, and in return are permitted to vote in leadership elections. To little fanfare, Labour has effectively created an open primary system for selecting its leader.
MPs have lost the voting section they previously had in the electoral college, so their votes are now worth the same as any other individual member, affiliated supporter or registered supporter. However, as a sweetner, they were given greater gate-keeping powers when the system changed. All leadership candidates need to be nominated by 15% of Labour MPs (up from 12.5%) to even stand in the election.
Asleep on the watch
If the MPs had taken their gate-keeping duties seriously, Corbyn would not have got his name on the ballot. However, he managed to pass the 15% threshold because some MPs “lent” him their nominations in order to broaden the debate in the party, while having no intention of voting for him.
At least 14 of his nominators fell into this category and it is starting to look like they made a disastrous miscalculation.
Everything now rests on the members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters. It is extremely easy for individuals to join one of these categories and participate in the election – it takes no more than a few clicks on Labour’s website and the payment of a very small fee by 12 August at the latest.
The system is so open that the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph urged its readers to register and vote for Corbyn, in a bid to “destroy Labour”.
Voting at £3 a pop
The greater danger for Labour moderates, however, lies in genuine left-wingers signing up to vote. After Labour’s two election defeats in 2010 and 2015, it paradoxically enjoyed membership surges. Individual membership rose from 156,000 in 2009 to 193,000 a year later. In the two months since the 2015 election, party membership has increased by 55,000 to about 250,000. Another 50,000 union members may have been signed up as affiliated supporters by the Unite union alone. Unite has formally endorsed Corbyn’s leadership bid.
It might seem strange that a defeated party could appear so appealing but there is a logic to it. After defeat, a party’s direction of travel is up for debate. That is especially true when there is a leadership election, which effectively means the party starts with a blank slate. For many on the left, excluded from influence during the Blair years, a leadership contest is an opportunity to make their case.
Like most major European parties, Labour has suffered a long-term decline in its membership as people’s partisan loyalties have weakened. An extra 55,000 members is just 0.1% of the British electorate, but it is a huge number in a party with a small membership. And such a sudden infusion can have have a transformative effect on a moribund organisation.
YouGov’s poll indicates that those who have joined Labour’s leadership electorate since its 2015 election defeat are significantly more likely to support Corbyn than those who have been long-term members. In a head-to-head, the new electors prefer Corbyn to Burnham by 60-40 whereas pre-2010 members prefer Burnham by 54-46. The affiliated and registered supporters prefer Corbyn by 69-31.
Of the new members, one third are under the age of 30 and their most common age is 18. Young people can become full members for just £1 per month or simply pay £3 to become registered supporters.
Like many young people, they may be idealistic and looking for a principled leader who will seek to change the world, rather than engage in the routine incrementalism and compromise characteristic of mainstream politics. And whereas in the past, a leadership election would have passed many of these people by, in the age of social media, they can engage with it much more readily.
Not only might they discuss the issues but they can also mobilise for collective action, which becomes more likely as its goal appears more achievable. In no time at all, the word is spread online and a force far beyond the control of Labour MPs is unleashed.
And it’s all been made possible by an open selection system and a nomination fail-safe that was deliberately deactivated by the MPs themselves.
These new members might well become Labour’s cyber-left, comparable to the SNP’s infamous cyber-nats. But questions remain over whether they have signed up to the idea of a reformist Labour Party or are the standard-bearers of a new electronic entryism.
The leadership contest remains up for grabs and Burnham or Cooper may yet pull Corbyn back. But Labour’s new selection system could have a sting in the tail. Affiliated supporters will likely lean to the left and unions such as Unite are continuing to sign up more every day. Having shed its most centrist leader in history just eight years ago, Labour may be about to get its most left-wing helmsman of all time.