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22 June 2015

Who will win the Labour leadership election? It’s a little early to tell

Forget what bookmakers and journalists are saying - our poll of party members finds it all too close to call, reveal Tim Bale and Paul Webb.

By Tim Bale

It’s doubtful that voters are paying that much attention to Labour’s leadership contest, but that hasn’t prevented pollsters from beginning to ask them who they think the party should pick. First out of the traps was Ipsos MORI.  Its poll last week suggested that no-one has yet established themselves as the clear favourite in the eyes of the public, with Andy Burnham on 15 per cent, Yvette Cooper on 14 per cent, Liz Kendall on 11 per cent and Jeremy Corbyn on 5 per cent.  Some 18 per cent of respondents claimed not to like any of the choices on offer and 34 per cent said they didn’t know.

Labour supporters, according to the same poll, were rather more likely to have an opinion – and less likely to be negative about the whole thing: although 24 per cent of them still don’t know, only 7 per cent said they didn’t like any of those standing.  Among those expressing a preference, Andy Burnham once again had a narrow 23 per cent-20 per cent lead over Yvette Cooper, with Liz Kendall on 11 per cent and token leftie, Jeremy Corbyn not far behind her on 9 per cent.

In the end, though, it’s not voters, or even that part of the electorate which reckons it will vote Labour, who will decide the contest.  And this time round it won’t be MPs or trade unionists either.  Yes, they’ll have a vote but, in contrast to 2010, it won’t be worth any more than that of any other ordinary member or affiliated supporter of the party.  So while it’s fascinating to see which MPs are declaring for which candidate it’s only by moving away from Westminster and asking grassroots members what they think that we can say anything worthwhile about the state of play at this stage.

And that’s exactly what we’ve done.  As part of a study into the demographics, motivations, opinions and activities of ordinary members funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, some of the fieldwork for which is being conducted by YouGov, we asked nearly 1200 Labour Party members in May who they’d like to see as their next leader.  Since we didn’t know at the time who would make it on to the ballot, and since we didn’t want to restrict their choices in case there were any dark horses out there that no one had noticed, we asked members to write in who they wanted rather than present them with a pre-cooked list of possible runners and riders.  Their answers suggest that there is, indeed, all to play for.

True, Andy Burnham was – yet again – the front-runner.  But he was only the choice of 18 per cent of members – not that far ahead of Chuka Umunna (who hadn’t yet dropped out when we started surveying) on 12 per cent.  Next came Yvette Cooper on 8.5 per cent (ahead of Dan Jarvis, who hadn’t yet ruled himself out when we began) on 5 per cent.  Liz Kendall, almost certainly because she was far less well-known, even by Labour Party members, than most of the others, was named by just 2 per cent – the same figure, incidentally, as the much better-known prince across the pond, David Miliband.  Jeremy Corbyn, by the way, wasn’t put forward by a single respondent.

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Still, the most striking thing was that nearly four out of ten grassroots members (37.5 per cent to be precise) said they didn’t yet know who they wanted to succeed Ed Miliband. Add that to the 34 per cent who named somebody outside of the four candidates who eventually made it onto the ballot, and it’s obvious that an awful of a lot of ordinary members’ votes  are still very much up for grabs. 

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We didn’t, though, just stop at asking the grassroots who they’d like to see leading the party.  We also asked them – and indeed the members of other parties – to rank the qualities they most valued in a leader.  Labour members, it turned out, were much less likely than Tory members to rank strength and authority number one, and much more likely to put having strong beliefs first.  Interestingly, less than 10 per cent of Labour’s grassroots put the ability to unite the party top of their list.  Indeed, being able to unite the nation, being in touch with ordinary people, being a good communicator and appealing to the average voter all came higher, each of them being ranked first by around 15 per cent of members.

Food for thought for all the candidates in a contest that, clearly, is still wide open.  Whatever the pundits or the bookies say, nobody has this thing sewn up – not yet at least.  It could be an interesting summer after all.

Tim Bale teaches politics at Queen Mary University, and is the author of Five Year Missiona history of Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour party. Paul Webb is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex, and is the co-editor of Party Politics.