Three observations about the Labour leadership election

For weeks Jeremy Corbyn had been expected to win the British Labour leadership race but the sheer scale of yesterday’s victory has shocked many.

While some thought it would go to a second round, Corbyn won in the first round with 59.5%. His closest competitor, Andy Burnham, only received 19%. It was a larger victory than Tony Blair’s in 1994 who won with 57% (although the selectorate was far larger in 1994).

It has left no doubt about Corbyn’s mandate amongst the Labour membership and the sheer number of registered supporters have quelled concerns about entryism.

Personally I am sceptical that Corbyn is the long term answer for Labour but neither were the other candidates. His victory does highlight, as Tim Lyons has noted, that the centre-left needs to deal with its inability to seek with moral clarity and a clear purpose. I can only hope that the disruption that his victory brings may force many within Labour to rethink and move on which it sorely needs to do.

There will be a plethora of thinkpieces about what Corbyn’s victory means over the next few weeks and months. It’s too early to tell what the long-term implications of his victory are but there are three quick observations I have from the leadership election based on the results.

1. The landslide victories were built on recruitment campaigns

Corbyn won 49.6% of the membership in the first round but he absolutely dominated the registered supporters section with 83.8%. The size of his victory amongst registered supporters is staggering but not a surprise.

Unlike the other leadership candidates, his campaign team actively recruited. Similarly Sadiq Khan actively recruited registered supporters and it helped to secure a landslide win over Tessa Jowell who was seen as the favourite to become the London Mayoral Candidate. She was well-regarded, had a good public profile and was associated with the successful London Olympics.

The moves by winning candidates to expand the selectorate reminds me of Canadian leadership elections. In the three major parties, members directly vote fo the leader and party memberships are actively sold to supporters during leadership contests by each campaign team. Those who can often recruit and organise the most supporters win.

The lesson for future Labour leadership elections will be the need for genuing organising and fieldwork and to bring potential supporters into the tent.

2. Union turnout was low

I have been sceptical of opt-in affiliation for unions and whether it would actually engage members of affiliated unions. While initial registration figures made me question my scepticism, the low turnout suggests that union member engagement, even amongst those who opted-in, was not high.

While turnout has not been officially revealed, based on those who registered to vote, only 48.2% of union members who opted in did. In contrast, 93.6% of registered supporters and 83.8% of members voted.

In the end, affiliated voters constituted only 16.9% of total votes (down from 27%) with 71,546. Rank and file members were 58.1% (up from 53%) and registered supporters made up 25% (up from 20%).

If there is no greater Labour Party engagement amongst affiliated union membership, it raises questions about what opt-in affiliation has really achieved beyond reducing funding from unions.

3. There will be a rethinking of support for primaries

The great irony of this result is that that the New Labour Right were the biggest advocates of primaries. They have admitted that it was an attempt to dilute left-wing member and union influence (through opt-in affiliation and primaries). Meanwhile the Left opposed the Collins Review that suggested recommended.

The problem is that their understanding of how primaries would work relied on America and the idea that a significant portion of the general population would participate. A better example to study would have been the party primaries run by the Italian Democratic Party (PD). The model was the same with a small fee and a pledge that voters needed to sign.

Academic studies have been done on participants in PD primaries, profiling them and their attributes. These studies found that participants have been more political than the average voter and more left-wing with no guarantee of party loyalty.

It is quite likely that the Labour Left will become converts to primaries whereas elements of the Labour Right will rethink their support. Already Dan Hodges has admitted that the Labour Right got it wrong.

There will be ripple effects here. It is likely to strengthen opposition to further democratisation of the Labor Party and the use of One Member One Vote being used to select leaders. Nick Dyrenfurth has already highlighted concerns about such a direct election model and is unlikely to be the only one to do so. The global trend, however, seems to be towards greater democratisation and primaries which poses a challenge for opponents.

Whatever does happen next, British Labour and social democratic politics will never be the same again after Corbyn’s victory.

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