How Diane Abbott may win the Labour leadership

Don’t laugh. My source is serious.

Blimey, that was a disorientating phone call.

Chatting to a credible source -- a former special adviser from the heart of New Labour -- about the Miliband brothers for a feature in this week's magazine, I turned to the contest more broadly. And, to my astonishment, this source made the case for why Diane Abbott may well win and become the next Labour leader.

How? The key is in the second preferences of those who vote for the candidates who come last overall from the three electoral colleges of MPs and MEPs, unions and affiliates.

The starting point for my source's theory, however, is that Abbott is will do "much better" than expected. He says the polls do not matter because of the second-preference factor, and argues that the hustings matter little because most of the 100,000-plus members will not attend any of them.

As such, conventional Westminster wisdom about who is up and who is down in the race can be discarded for the most part. Instead, members will watch Newsnight tonight, as Richard Darlington has pointed out on this blog, and they will read the Guardian, Independent and New Statesman. Abbott, of course, is a strong media performer.

The source, who knows the Labour Party as well as any adviser, predicts that overall, in first preferences, the top three will be the Miliband brothers and Diane Abbott, and that Ed Balls and Andy Burnham's second preferences will transfer first, because they will make up the bottom two.

The question then is whom those who vote for these two will offer as their second preference. Here (forgive me) we are stepping even further into the darkness. But we can look at last year's deputy leadership campaign, in which Harriet Harman emerged ahead of the favourite, Alan Johnson, after the second preferences of votes for Hazel Blears, Peter Hain, Hilary Benn and -- decisively -- Jon Cruddas pushed her over the line.

This may be pushing it, but my source believes there are reasons why a good proportion of those who voted for Balls and Burnham will have Abbott as their second preference, while those who did not vote for a Miliband are unlikely to do so as second preference. Balls may attract similar votes from the "traditional left", while Burnham supporters, taken in by his northern, anti-establishment campaign, may also like the other perceived anti-establishment candidate, Abbott.

So, will Diane Abbott be the Harriet Harman of 2010? In reality, almost certainly not. But do not underestimate the unpredictability of this contest.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear