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With a 25% threshold, Labour would’ve had just 3 or 4 Leadership elections in 100 years

Crown of India by Pietro & Silvia, at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ImperialCrownOfIndia2.jpgMark Ferguson at Labour List reports today that “credible reports suggest that in future a leadership candidate will need to secure the support of 25% of MPs to get onto the ballot paper rather than the previous figure of 12.5%.” By my estimation (see below), had there always been a 25% threshold for valid nominations by MPs, there would only have been three or four contested elections for leader in the history of the Labour party — in 1922, in 1963 (though George Brown would have won), in 2010 (just) and possibly in 1976 (if not, Michael Foot would have become leader unopposed). Although it is mathematically possible to have three candidates in a contest with a 25% threshold but no more, even these contests would have been only two-way.

We have had the recent experience of the “coronation” of Gordon Brown. It was not a happy one, and it served neither the party nor Gordon himself well, though he was himself in large part responsible. The fact that he had never faced a contest undermined his authority and allowed Blairites to repeatedly threaten to challenge him though they never really had the numbers to pull it off. It is not worth risking more coronations and it is therefore vital to resist any significant increase to the current 12.5% threshold where there are vacancies. 

Of the possibility of a 25% threshold, Mark Ferguson goes on to say:

Many members won’t like that and will feel that their choice of candidate is being restricted, but that neglects the duality of the role of Labour leader – not just the leader of the party, but the leader of the PLP too. A leadership candidate who cannot secure the backing of 25% of MPs isn’t a credible candidate for Prime Minister and would struggle horrendously with managing the parliamentary party. It’s therefore no great shame to have such candidates out of the race before members vote, giving them a real choice, rather than a chimera.

That isn’t right. Here’s why: you couldn’t have more than three candidates with a 25% threshold and in practice, as I argue below, you would normally have only two nominations, if indeed you got more than one. Even with a 12.5% threshold, Gordon Brown was elected “unopposed”. Increase it and you will increase the frequency of “coronations”. Unless a contest is reasonably close, many MPs are reluctant to publicly endorse someone who looks likely to lose, who may not even reach the threshold.

You might remove MPs from an electoral college and have OMOV in theory, but you’ll have more coronations than elections and never more than two candidates. We are already uncomfortably close to an elected dictatorship in the Labour Party. We don’t want a monarchy.

Although there is a limit to how far one can go with counter-factual history, the past is a good guide and it is worth examining previous leadership elections – there aren’t too many.

1922

The Labour Party’s first election for the post of “Chairman and Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party” was between former Chairman John Clynes and former leader Ramsay McDonald. This is perhaps the only election that might have taken place with the same candidates had there been a threshold of 25% which in 1922 with 142 MPs would have been 36.

1935

Atlee, who had been appointed interim leader after Lansbury’s resignation in the run up to the 1935 general election, was challenged after the election by Herbert Morrison and Arthur Greenwood. There were 154 Labour MPs, so 25% was 39. Although the first round was a close 3-way contest by leadership election standards – Atlee 58 (43%), Morrisson 44 (33%) Greenwood 33 (24%), but the threshold would almost certainly have prevented a challenge since Greenwood’s votes transferred to Atlee.

1955

When Atlee resigned after losing the general election, there were 277 Labour MPs, so 25% was 70. That was exactly the number of votes Nye Bevan got against Hugh Gaitskell, who won in that ballot with 157 (59%), but who clearly would not have had to face a contest had there been a threshold of 70 for nominations. Herbert Morrison got 40 votes, and wouldn’t have made it into this contest either.

1960/61

Gaitskell faced two challenges whilst leader, from Harold Wilson in 1960 (defeated 166 to 81) and 1961 from Anthony Greenwood (defeated 171 to 59). Would even the first have taken place with a threshold of 65?

1963

When Gaitskell died, George Brown succeeded him as interim leader but then lost the contest to Harold Wilson by 41 votes in the second ballot. Both probably could have met the threshold of 65, but not Jim Callaghan who got 41 votes in the first round. According to Ben Pimlott, both Wilson & Jenkins thought that without Callaghan’s entry to the contest, setting right-winger against right-winger, George Brown would have won. How different would the 60s and seventies been?

1976

When Wilson resigned, there were 317 Labour MPs, so 25% was 80. Callaghan got just 84 votes in the first ballot but went on to win. With a threshold of 80, even he might not have got into the contest, in which case Michael Foot, who led in the first ballot and Callaghan actually beat on the third, would have been elected unopposed.

1980

Jim Callaghan hung on after the 1979 Thatcher victory and might have hung on even longer had he not decided to deliberately pre-empt Labour’s original decision to move to a wider franchise for electing a leader. Michael Foot was persuaded to enter the contest in these circumstances but probably would not have done so in others. Had there already been a wider franchise with a 25% threshold, the contest might have more closely resembled the deputy leadership election of 1981. In such circumstances Tony Benn may well have been able to get rather more than the 32 MPs who nominated him for deputy leader in the real contest in 1981, but surely not enough to meet a threshold of 68 having got the votes of just 71 MPs in the final ballot of the deputy-leadership campaign. Denis Healey would have been elected unopposed, but it would not have been celebrated as a coronation!

1983

Neil Kinnock was elected after Michael Foot’s resignation following the defeat of 1983. None of Roy Hattersley, Eric Heffer and Peter Shore with 53, 29 and 21 MPs’ votes would have been able to enter the contest had there been a threshold of 55 in a PLP of 209, and Kinnock would not have faced a challenge during his term.

1992

John Smith was elected following the defeat and Neil Kinnock’s resignation. Bryan Gould did not get 68 votes from MPs so would not have reached the threshold of 68 of the party’s 271 MPs.

1994

After John Smith’s death, Tony Blair triumphed over John Prescott and Margaret Beckett who received less than 20% of the votes of the PLP section.  Tony Blair would also have been elected unopposed.

2007

Gordon Brown’s coronation after Blair’s departure would have been unaffected.

2010

Only the Miliband brothers could have hoped to meet a threshold of 87, but would Ed have made it? In fact he got 63, and he might have got more without Abbott, Burnham and Balls in the contest. I doubt his brother would have been as generous to his brother in the way he was to Abbott, but I do think he would just about have scraped enough. The two brothers would no doubt have greatly enjoyed their joint travels around the country speaking at hustings even more than they did as a fivesome.

 

10 Comments

  1. Syzygy says:

    A 25% threshold is effectively handing control back to the PLP

  2. Norrette says:

    Thanks Syzgy for flagging up the Indie article.

    It’s not often I disagree with Ferguson but I do on this point. For argument’s sake, if the PLP nominated two candidates 75/25 and the membership selected the 25%er – s/he would still ‘struggle horrendously with managing the parliamentary party.’ Especially the 75% who might think they’d earned promotion with such support?

  3. Norrette says:

    Miliband in the Guardian tonight: Concedes to 20% – only this is still not a direct quote.

    http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/jan/31/ed-miliband-labour-union-funding-shakeup

  4. James penders says:

    The biggest issue effecting the election of a Leader is dependant on the Independence of Scotland. The potential loss of 43 MPs, would effectively hand control of “England” to the Tories. The election of a Labour Leader could then come from a Regional base “England” could be split in to 4 Areas, with each of the areas selecting their choice candidate, and then all members pay their money and take the chance.
    Speculative I know, The Scottish Question dependant.

  5. James penders says:

    Oh and Chris, go away.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      Offensive remark removed. Ed.

  6. Jon Lansman says:

    Even a 20% threshold would have meant coronations of Blair, Smith & possibly Kinnock as well as Brown.

    If the rest of package was worth supporting (which unfortunately I don’t think it is), a preliminary ballot of MPs – without thresholds as there used to be pre 1980 – with the top 3 going to a membership OMOV ballot would be preferable.

  7. swatantra says:

    The fact is that a good leader would be able to deal with such a situation arising and win over the doubters through argument, and even bringing them into the inner circles of decision making; and there is still quite a bit of patronage that Leader can dish out as well to win people around. Frankly I’ve a feeling that the rule change to OMOV is not going to make all that much difference anyway.
    Circumstances always throw up a good Leader: Come the Times, Come the Leader: And you get MacDonald, Attlee Wilson and Blair. And we’ve always had kind of caretaker ‘Leaders’ like Lansbury, Henderson, Callaghan, Brown and the present incumbent. No system is infallable.

    1. James Penders says:

      The rise of a leader, which has been lacking in recent years unless you are in the circle, is something that would/could ignite the voter, spark debate, and bring a sea change. The main problem we are faced with is a “bloke” appearing, spinning a few lines in the hope of getting the top job, who has spent all their dedication and time saying from day one, I want to change the world, and be Prime Minister?

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