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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.