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5 June 2015

Will Jeremy Corbyn make the ballot?

Jeremy Corbyn, the leftwing MP, has announced he will seek nominations for the Labour leadership race. His chances are better than they look.

By Stephen Bush

Jeremy Corbyn has electrified the race for the Labour leadership with his announcement that he will enter the contest. The battle to succeed Ed Miliband, hitherto played out between representatives of the party’s three centre-left factions, will – however briefly – feature a candidate from the party’s left flank.

How long can Corbyn keep in the race? To make it to the ballot he needs the signatures of 12.5 per cent of his colleagues in the Commons by 17 June – 35 MPs. That bar has proved too high for candidates of the left in recent years – John McDonnell was unable to get on the ballot against Gordon Brown, and Diane Abbott only got into the ballot thanks to the support of David Miliband, who lent some of his MPs to her. 

But the Labour left is stronger in Parliament than it has been for some time. 10 newly-elected MPs signed an open letter calling for the party’s new leader to embrace a leftwing agenda. Eight of the 10 added their names to a coded attack on the party’s right, published last week on the New Statesman website. 

Taken together, those MPs, coupled with those who have already pledged to put Corbyn on the ballot, would be able to give the Islington MP 34 signatures – just one short. Getting an extra name on the ballot should be simplicity itself – many MPs, from across the party, nodded along to the NS article written by Chi Onwurah, calling for a broad debate to decide the next party leader. Corbyn’s politeness and personal courtesy further boosts his chances of picking up the extra nomination he’d need. One MP from the party’s right tells me that they “would never nominate John McDonnell, but my door is always open to Jeremy Corbyn”.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. 15 of Corbyn’s possible endorsers have already backed Burnham and three – Jess Philips, Paula Sherriff, and Ian Mearns – have endorsed Yvette Cooper. Of course, nothing is set in stone until the nomination period ends, and all 18 could decide to put their weight behind Corbyn. 

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When Burnham became the first candidate to officially pass the threshold, one Cooper supporter pointed out that he would become the “Why aren’t you helping Mary?” candidate – “every nomination he picks up from now on makes him look anti-democratic” . Both Cooper and Kendall’s campaigns are, I’m told, deliberately holding back the names of some supporters in order to avoid falling into the same trap. But Creagh is a bigger danger to both their campaigns – another woman in the case of Cooper, and another candidate making an explicit pitch to the party’s modernisers in the case of Kendall – than to Burnham’s. But frankly, that so much of Creagh’s pitch echoes Kendall’s means that her case for inclusion is weaker than Corbyn’s. 

So far, the Burnham campaign has banked the support of the left and is now running hard to the centre, endorsing primaries to select new MPs, eschewing trade union funding, and arguing that Labour spent too heavily before the financial crisis. As one Burnham ally put it to George, the party’s left faces a brutal question: “Where else do they have to go?” 

“Imagine the final contest is Liz, Andy, Yvette, Jeremy Corbyn,” says one MP, “Liz and Yvette will distance themselves from him – but where does Andy go? Does he condemn him? Support him? Try to set a middle way?” 

That means that those 15 supporters will likely come under sustained pressure not to move to Corbyn – but they will also be being barracked by the local parties to do exactly that. That Corbyn didn’t speak to the rest of the left MPs before announcing has reduced the chances of a mass defection. As one left-winger puts it: “No-one wants to sign up to a campaign that is disorganised and discredits all of us”. But don’t be fooled: the numbers are certainly there to put Corbyn on the ballot. The question is whether there’s the will. 

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