Jeremy Corbyn’s unlikely bid for the Labour leadership was only taken seriously once he started winning an impressive number of constituency Labour party (CLP) nominations. He currently has more than any other candidate. Other than a questionable YouGov poll, CLP nominations are the only means we have for measuring the temper of party members, an electorate some say has been transformed since the last time it was asked to choose a leader – and that under a different voting system.
But what happens at a nomination meeting? On Thursday evening I went to a primary school in the Manchester Withington constituency to find out. Despite someone fainting just after the first speaker said, ‘Good evening comrades’, it wasn’t as dramatic as you might think.
Withington is one of the seats Labour actually won in 2015 – and that with a big swing that saw it gain 53 per cent of the vote. Jeff Smith beat the Liberal Democrats who had taken the constituency from Labour in 2005. It is a socially mixed constituency with affluent areas such as Chorlton and working class districts like Burnage. Legend has it however that the constituency contains the largest number of Guardian readers in the country – and in 2015 the Greens came close to putting the Conservatives in fourth place. So, ‘typical’ it is not.
Labour membership in Withington is relatively high, at about 1,250. From those 170 – that is just over 10 per cent of the total – who attended the nomination meeting, the party appears broadly typical of the national party, as revealed in a recent survey undertaken by Tim Bale and Paul Webb. So, in the room there were somewhat more men than women and ethnic minorities were slightly under-represented. It was also a predominantly middle-aged gathering. It’s hard to know what occupations members hold, but the meeting had the quiet buzz of an excitable secondary school staff room.
Contradicting the impression given by those hurling abuse on the social media and disrespectful remarks from Chuka Umuna and Mary Creagh, this was a polite gathering of good-humoured people who took their task seriously. Nobody called anybody a moron.
Initially addressed by the four candidates’ representatives, who then answered a small number of questions before giving a brief recap of their arguments, it was all over in two hours. Applause was limited as the chair had warned the meeting that the more we clapped the less we could talk. Even so, applause did break out, usually after Jeremy Corbyn’s representative, Julie Reid, a local councillor, claimed Labour had “out Toried the Tories” for far too long, a line of which she seemed very fond. The meeting was however generally conducted in respectful silence.
John Healey did a good job for Yvette Cooper and I wonder if he made a better case than even she might have done. Luciana Berger gave the impression that Andy Burnham was all things to all members which, to be fair to her, seems the main theme of the Burnham campaign. Both Healey and Berger sugared the pill somewhat: it was Liz Kendall’s stand-in, Nick Bent, a candidate in a marginal seat Labour should have won, who made the starkest of points. If the party was to win in 2020, he stated, it had to “chase Tory votes”, noting how distasteful such a comment might sound to a Labour meeting. But even Bent claimed this did not mean abandoning “Labour values”: that such “values” would never be compromised was also stressed by Healey and Berger. So it remained unclear precisely what they thought had to be done to attract such Tory voters.
Given the temper of the national campaign – at least as reflected in the press and social media – the four speakers were remarkably restrained. Earlier in the week in a Facebook exchange Corbyn’s representative had compared Liz Kendall supporters to Nazi collaborators. But she didn’t repeat the charge on the night. In fact, when asked how their candidates would ensure party unity, all four blandly claimed they would – but I am not sure how many believed what they were saying. This was an evening of punches pulled. If Julie Reid ended her pitch for Corbyn claiming, “A different and better world is possible”, the other three focused more prosaically on the how the party needed to “reach out” to those who decided not to vote Labour in 2015.
If the meeting had decided its nomination on the basis of which candidate got the loudest and longest applause then Corbyn would have won. But it used the alternative vote system, the one to be employed to decide the actual outcome in September. This saw Yvette Cooper win the Withington nomination very easily by 110 votes to Jeremy Corbyn’s 55, with Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham barely troubling the tellers. Burnham’s poor performance was surprising given north west England is meant to be one of his strongholds and that he had been endorsed by the local MP. In fact this was one of five CLP nominations Cooper picked up on Thursday night from within Greater Manchester. Some mentioned his volte-face over the Welfare Bill vote as a reason: but frankly who knows?! What is clear is that while Corbyn’s case for going back to a “socialism” untainted by compromise resonated at the meeting Healey’s more sober argument for Cooper prevailed.
The meeting also voted on the deputy leadership although there was no debate: this tied Tom Watson and Stella Creasy on 60 votes each. But such was the lack of interest in the contest – the meeting had to be reminded a few times who were the candidates – it was decided the CLP would not formally register a preference.
Unlike in the 1980s, a constituency nomination now formally means nothing: members vote individually. And not all CLPs are holding nomination meetings: summer is the time even activists give politics a break. But such gatherings have certainly given Corbyn’s campaign a momentum it would otherwise not have had. How representative they are of the wider membership remains moot: we’ll only find out when the result is announced on September 12.