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Why Labour MPs could still decide the final result

The backing of MPs could still have a decisive effect on the votes of Labour members.

I followed the nomination battle for the Labour leadership in much the same way that I imagine fans of the English Premier League followed the U-21 European Championship: with sadness that the main event (the general election) had come to an end, and a sense of foreboding that the summer wouldn't provide me with much excitement, still less the daily fix I needed to sustain my habit.

Indeed, with the exception of some polls which have gamely attempted to gauge the mood within the Labour party (or Labour party sympathizers, the leadership campaign seems to have changed from a numbers game to a game of positioning (or labelling). The Staggers’ list of MPs supporting each candidate has remained frozen in time, forever stuck  at the close of nominations this year.

On one reading of the leadership election, that's entirely to be expected. "The parliamentary party, having decided the shape of the ballot paper, no longer matter". The tripartite electoral college which so complicated matters in 2010 no longer exists, and the votes of MPs and MEPs weigh the same as the votes of ordinary party members.

Yet if we look back to the results of the 2010 leadership election, we can see that MPs endorsements did matter, and not just for deciding who got on the ballot paper. In 2010, Labour released the results of the membership vote in each constituency. In almost all of the Labour-held constituencies, the sitting MP endorsed one of the candidates. Those endorsements mattered for how MPs voted -- but did they have any effect on members of the constituency party?

Figure: Difference between share in constituencies where candidate received endorsement (in black) compared to all other constituencies (in grey).


The graph above shows the average (first preference) vote share for 2010 candidates in constituencies where they did and didn't receive endorsements. In all cases, candidates received more votes in constituencies where the MP had endorsed them. The endorsement bonus varied -- endorsements for Andy Burnham carried a lot more weight than endorsements for Ed Balls -- but in all but one case (Diane Abbott) there's statistical clear blue water between endorsing and non-endorsing constituencies.

Of course, constituencies in which the sitting MP endorsed Diane Abbott are likely to be different in lots of respects from constituencies in which the sitting MP endorsed David Miliband. That is, these differences might be epiphenomenal -- the same things might be driving both the endorsement and the difference we see in vote share. But when I control for a number of obvious factors -- like how left or right-wing the constituency is -- endorsement still matters. The relative position of candidates changes: Diane Abbott gets on average six percentage points from her endorsements, compared to 10 percentage points for Andy Burnham, or just five for endorsements for David Miliband.

This matters, because according to the frozen-in-time list of endorsements, 22 MPs can still endorse but have not yet decided. By continuing to work on their parliamentary colleagues, leadership candidates may end up winning votes amongst ordinary party members.

I admit, the rewards are not huge. The average turnout in each constituency party is likely to be between two and three hundred voters, so each endorsement only brings twenty extra first preferences. And it may be that ordinary party members will care less about MPs' endorsements now that they now they won't have extra weight in the final tally. But in an election where small margins can affect not just the final result, but also the transfers of votes between candidates, those extra first preferences might well be worth playing for.

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details:

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