Tom Quinn

Jeremy Corbyn’s imminent re-election as Labour leader has been long predicted. The party’s transformation since the general election has been astonishing, with membership increasing from 200,000 to 500,000, and most new recruits being left-leaning. Labour’s more centrist MPs, who expressed no confidence in Corbyn this summer and instigated a leadership challenge, look extremely exposed.

It’s a far cry from May 2015 when the last leadership contest started and which is the subject of my recent article in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations. Corbyn began that contest as a no-hoper but ended up surging to victory, with almost 60% of the vote. The paper explains how that happened and why the conventional explanation of leadership elections, associated with Leonard Stark, in his book, Choosing the Leader (Macmillan, 1996), failed to explain Labour’s 2015 contest.

Stark argued that leadership elections were determined more by essential selection criteria than institutional rules. These criteria related to party goals. The primary goal was to remain internally united as doing so would enable the secondary goal of winning elections, which itself enabled the tertiary goal of governing and implementing policies. Divided parties require leaders who are broadly acceptable to a range of internal opinion, and that is the first selection criterion. Relatively united parties choose leaders on electability and if the candidates are deemed similar on that, then on likely prime-ministerial competence. Stark showed that most British leadership elections follow this format, as did my own updating of Stark’s model (Electing and Ejecting Party Leaders in Britain, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Jeremy Corbyn’s victory over three moderate candidates, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, in 2015 challenged this approach. His radical-leftist candidacy would not unite the Labour Party – it alienated most Labour MPs; and he was arguably the weakest of the four candidates on both electability and competence (he had been a backbencher for all of his 32 years in parliament). A poll of Labour’s selectorate indicated that his supporters were not backing him for reasons of unity, electability or competence, but because they agreed with his radical-left policy preferences and the decisive break with the centrist New Labour strategy of Tony Blair that Corbyn represented.

If Stark’s model cannot explain the outcome, how about institutions? Stark acknowledged that, on occasion, these can play a decisive role. Labour deployed a new selection system in 2015, based on one-member-one-vote (OMOV), but supplemented with elements of an open primary, whereby Labour-affiliated trade unionists could sign up to vote for free, as affiliated supporters, and members of the public could become registered supporters by paying £3 and be entitled to vote. In this OMOV+ system, over 105,000 registered supporters would ultimately vote, as would 71,000 affiliated supporters. A surge in the number of full members after the general election saw 245,000 participate. Corbyn won 49.6% of full members, 57.6% of affiliated supporters, and 83.8% of registered supporters, giving him 59.5% of the overall vote, far ahead of Burnham on 19%, Cooper on 17% and Kendall on 4.5%.

OMOV+ had replaced Labour’s previous tripartite electoral college, which split votes equally between MPs (and MEPs), party members and trade unionists. Registered supporters did not exist as a category. It is most unlikely that Corbyn would have lost under this system, as MPs were staunchly opposed to him so that even if he had won majorities of individual members and trade unionists, the weight of MPs’ votes would have tipped the balance.

Before putting his victory down to OMOV+, however, two qualifications are needed. First, each candidate needed to be nominated by 15% of Labour MPs (35 in total). Corbyn passed that threshold only because up to 14 of his 36 backers nominated him, not because they supported him, but because they wanted to ‘broaden the debate’ in the contest. The same had happened in the 2010 contest when Diane Abbott was ‘loaned’ nominations to allow the radical left to field a candidate, but she won only 7% of the vote. Most people expected Corbyn to perform similarly in 2015. The rules, therefore, gave Corbyn’s parliamentary opponents all the power they needed to stop his candidacy. No system can be fool-proofed against irrational behaviour.

Second, the absence of a qualifying period for new members and supporters to be eligible to vote ensured a surge in applicants well into the leadership campaign. Most new recruits were supportive of Corbyn. His progress could have been checked if a freeze date had been imposed, as it was in the 2016 contest. Corbyn’s victory was not entirely down to new recruits – even a strong plurality of pre-2015 members voted for him – but the influx undoubtedly boosted his campaign, infusing it with momentum.

That is also why it’s wrong to assume that the new members decisively tilted Labour’s electorate to the left. There was a moderate shift to the left among members and trade unionists, but nowhere near enough to explain why the radical left candidate won 7% in 2010 and 60% in 2015. The main difference between newer and older selectors was not over policy preferences – both groups were fairly left-wing – but over strategy. New selectors and Corbyn’s supporters generally were less prepared to trade-off principles for electability, compared with supporters of the other three candidates. Indeed, the desirability of electability was diminished in this leadership contest, if the latter were understood in terms of tacking to the centre. Corbyn’s supporters believed there was little point in getting elected in order to implement policies that members opposed.

There were other factors that undermined the appeal of electability. One was the surprising scale of Labour’s defeat in the 2015 general election and the loss of most of its Scottish seats. That made the road back to government look long and arduous. A second was the weak line-up of moderate candidates, none of whom looked an obvious election-winner. These two factors made a vote for the radical left look like a lower-cost option, given that Labour’s electoral prospects looked difficult regardless of who won.

As for unity, the 2015 contest demonstrated that sometimes, party selectors do not want unity if it means factional peace and compromise. The left wanted to achieve factional victory, to capture the party and remould it in a left-wing image. Events since Corbyn’s election have confirmed that is the left’s wider project. Labour is now staunchly anti-austerity and a push is underway to change the direction of its foreign and defence policies. The long-term success of this project remains to be seen, but what has become clear is that it is the MPs who are out of step. The leader, the members, the trade unions and increasingly intra-party bodies such as the National Executive Committee back Corbyn. With deselection being freely discussed, the MPs must decide whether to submit to the left, continue fighting it with little extra-parliamentary support, or break away to form a new party, with the fate of the SDP a reminder of the dangers of doing so. None of these options looks appetising for Labour’s moderates but with the impending defeat of Smith’s challenge, they must choose one.


Tom Quinn is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Essex. His article ‘The British Labour Party’s Leadership Election of 2015’ is published in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations and is available here.   

Image: David Holt CC BY-NC-ND