What do CLP nominations tell us about the Labour leadership race?

It's early days, but here are some pointers.

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Constituency Labour Parties have begun nominating candidates for the vacant party leadership. In the past, these have proved a pretty good yardstick as to who the eventual winner among Labour Party members will be, accurately reflecting the winner at every election since at least 1988.

However, they are not a perfect indicator and we have just nine nominations in so far. Here are some general thoughts about what I have observed while covering this stage of a Labour leadership race before and how I think we should view them this time.

It’s better to see these results as probabilistic rather than definitive

If in 2016 you had gathered 100 Labour members in any part of the country together and asked them to vote for whom they wanted as leader, you’d expect 60 of them to be backing Jeremy Corbyn, and 40 to be backing Owen Smith.  

But of course, they wouldn’t always. In some of those rooms, 80 of them would support Jeremy Corbyn and just 20 Owen Smith. In others, 60 would back Smith and forty Jeremy Corbyn.

That becomes yet more complex when you have multiple candidates. Labour uses a preferential voting system, in which you rank the candidates in order. In the event that no candidate secures more than half the vote, the bottom-ranked candidate is eliminated, and their voters’ second preferences are reallocated until someone clears 50 per cent of the vote.

In the 2015 race, that had big consequences for the result at a local level. The longer Andy Burnham stayed in the race, the more likely it was that Jeremy Corbyn would not pick up the nomination, as Burnham voters provided the bulk of his second preferences. A similar dynamic tended to apply for Yvette Cooper, who did best at picking up second preferences from supporters of Liz Kendall.

That threw out all sorts of individual weird results but across the overall set of nominations, in both contests, while there were odd results here and there, when all the dust had settled, the final result gave us a good steer as to who the winner would be.

It’s probably more helpful to treat CLP nominations as giving a probability figure – Jeremy Corbyn getting 285 CLP nominations out of the 338 that nominated in 2016 indicated he had an 80 per cent chance of winning, and taken with YouGov polls, every other scrap of meaningful data and basic common sense meant that we could be close to 100 per cent confidence saying he would win.

It’s far too early to be able to do that with the number of CLP nominations we have, but by this time next week I think we’ll be able to treat them as providing a good measure as to how probable the chances of a win for the various candidates are among Labour Party members and I expect to be able to make a firm prediction by the end of the contest.

There appears to be one lesson already

One big thing that has changed since the 2016 Labour leadership election is that CLP nominations are no longer merely a way for local Labour Party members to express a preference – they are a route to the ballot.

We can essentially be certain that Rebecca Long-Bailey and Keir Starmer will make it to the ballot paper thanks to the support of trades unions and affiliated societies and we can be reasonably confident that the same is true for Lisa Nandy as well.  

In the deputy race, we know that Richard Burgon and Angela Rayner are certain to qualify via the trades union and affiliated societies route.

So the question going into this stage of the contest was: would members choose to treat the CLP contest as a race between Jess Phillips and Emily Thornberry, who need to get to the ballot via this route, or if they would choose to vote for their actual preferred candidate.

So far we have a very clear answer: of the nine constituency parties to nominate for the party leadership, six have backed Keir Starmer and three have backed Rebecca Long-Bailey. Five have backed Angela Rayner, with one apiece going to Dawn Butler, Richard Burgon and Ian Murray.

This doesn’t suggest that Labour Party members are prioritising ensuring a wide field of candidates makes it to the final stage of the contest.

These results don’t tell us much about the candidate’s appeal to the country, but they do tell us something about the party

The nature of internal elections is that the various campaigns will try to claim that their performance in a particular set of seats is a sign of strength. Jeremy Corbyn’s best results in Labour leadership elections were close to a mirror image of his performance at general elections: he did least-well in London in the Labour leadership election, but did better in London than anywhere else.

However, that weakness did then give us a pretty good read on which parts of the party would be most likely to reject Corbynite candidates in selection battles. A similar dynamic will likely be at work here.

Things can change midway through the race

At the beginning of the 2015 Labour leadership election, Jeremy Corbyn was doing pretty well at picking up CLP nominations, Andy Burnham was doing pretty well, Yvette Cooper was doing okay, and Liz Kendall was doing pretty badly.

By the end, Jeremy Corbyn was doing astonishingly well at picking up CLP nominations, Yvette Cooper was doing fairly well, Andy Burnham was doing pretty well, and Liz Kendall was doing catastrophically badly.

What happened? Two things. The first was that the pattern of CLP nominations, and the two YouGov polls of the race, convinced people voting for Andy Burnham because he was the most left-wing candidate capable of winning the leadership contest that they could vote for Jeremy Corbyn. A tranche of “Andy Burnham: 1, Jeremy Corbyn: 2” voters became “Jeremy Corbyn: 1, Andy Burnham: 2” voters (though Burnham retained a large chunk of these voters throughout the race). Then the Welfare Bill saw voters backing Jeremy Corbyn as their second preference defect directly not only from Burnham but from Cooper and Kendall as well. 

While these made no difference to the overall result, it did make Corbyn’s victory more emphatic and quicker than it otherwise would have been.

In 2016, however, the pattern from the third night of nominations was of Jeremy Corbyn's strength, which never changed. 

However, the order doesn’t make any real difference otherwise

Some of these CLP nominations will be, shall we say, “managed” by whichever faction is locally dominant. Managed selections happened throughout the campaign last time – ones held at the beginning, middle or end aren’t any more or less representative as a result of this.

The words “among Labour Party members” are really worth remembering

The candidate with the largest number of Constituency Labour Party nominations has always won among Labour Party members. In 2015 and 2016, they were the overwhelming majority of voters so this mattered a great deal. In 2010, Labour’s electoral college meant that David Miliband’s win among members didn’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things thanks to Ed Miliband’s strong performance among affiliated groups.

Since the change to one member one vote, trade unions have been successful in signing up their members to have a vote – but far less successful at getting them to cast it. If that changes, CLP nominations may not be predictive this time.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.