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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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Why is Labour surging in Wales?

A new poll suggests Labour will not be going gently into that good night. 

Well where did that come from? The first two Welsh opinion polls of the general election campaign had given the Conservatives all-time high levels of support, and suggested that they were on course for an historic breakthrough in Wales. For Labour, in its strongest of all heartlands where it has won every general election from 1922 onwards, this year had looked like a desperate rear-guard action to defend as much of what they held as possible.

But today’s new Welsh Political Barometer poll has shaken things up a bit. It shows Labour support up nine percentage points in a fortnight, to 44 percent. The Conservatives are down seven points, to 34 per cent. Having been apparently on course for major losses, the new poll suggests that Labour may even be able to make ground in Wales: on a uniform swing these figures would project Labour to regain the Gower seat they narrowly lost two years ago.

There has been a clear trend towards Labour in the Britain-wide polls in recent days, while the upwards spike in Conservative support at the start of the campaign has also eroded. Nonetheless, the turnaround in fortunes in Wales appears particularly dramatic. After we had begun to consider the prospect of a genuinely historic election, this latest reading of the public mood suggests something much more in line with the last century of Welsh electoral politics.

What has happened to change things so dramatically? One possibility is always that this is simply an outlier – the "rogue poll" that basic sampling theory suggests will happen every now and then. As us psephologists are often required to say, "it’s just one poll". It may also be, as has been suggested by former party pollster James Morris, that Labour gains across Britain are more apparent than real: a function of a rise in the propensity of Labour supporters to respond to polls.

But if we assume that the direction of change shown by this poll is correct, even if the exact magnitude may not be, what might lie behind this resurgence in Labour’s fortunes in Wales?

One factor may simply be Rhodri Morgan. Sampling for the poll started on Thursday last week – less than a day after the announcement of the death of the much-loved former First Minister. Much of Welsh media coverage of politics in the days since has, understandably, focused on sympathetic accounts of Mr Morgan’s record and legacy. It would hardly be surprising if that had had some positive impact on the poll ratings of Rhodri Morgan’s party – which, we should note, are up significantly in this new poll not only for the general election but also in voting intentions for the Welsh Assembly. If this has played a role, such a sympathy factor is likely to be short-lived: by polling day, people’s minds will probably have refocussed on the electoral choice ahead of them.

But it could also be that Labour’s campaign in Wales is working. While Labour have been making modest ground across Britain, in Wales there has been a determined effort by the party to run a separate campaign from that of the UK-wide party, under the "Welsh Labour" brand that carried them to victory in last year’s devolved election and this year’s local council contests. Today saw the launch of the Welsh Labour manifesto. Unlike two years ago, when the party’s Welsh manifesto was only a modestly Welshed-up version of the UK-wide document, the 2017 Welsh Labour manifesto is a completely separate document. At the launch, First Minister Carwyn Jones – who, despite not being a candidate in this election is fronting the Welsh Labour campaign – did not even mention Jeremy Corbyn.

Carwyn Jones also represented Labour at last week’s ITV-Wales debate – in contrast to 2015, when Labour’s spokesperson was then Shadow Welsh Secretary Owen Smith. Jones gave an effective performance, being probably the best performer alongside Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood. In fact, Wood was also a participant in the peculiar, May-less and Corbyn-less, ITV debate in Manchester last Thursday, where she again performed capably. But her party have as yet been wholly unable to turn this public platform into support. The new Welsh poll shows Plaid Cymru down to merely nine percent. Nor are there any signs yet that the election campaign is helping the Liberal Democrats - their six percent support in the new Welsh poll puts them, almost unbelievably, at an even lower level than they secured in the disastrous election of two year ago.

This is only one poll. And the more general narrowing of the polls across Britain will likely lead to further intensification, by the Conservatives and their supporters in the press, of the idea of the election as a choice between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn as potential Prime Ministers. Even in Wales, this contrast does not play well for Labour. But parties do not dominate the politics of a nation for nearly a century, as Labour has done in Wales, just by accident. Under a strong Conservative challenge they certainly are, but Welsh Labour is not about to go gently into that good night.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.

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