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6 January 2020

What do the Labour Party’s leadership rules mean for the contest to come?

The National Executive Committee has effectively decided that the contest will be split into three parts. 

By Stephen Bush

And we’re off! The Labour Party’s ruling National Executive Committee has set the terms of the contest to replace Jeremy Corbyn.

The contest has effectively been split into three stages. To make the contest proper, candidates must secure the nominations of 10 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs (that’s 22 signatures in total) and get one of the following: the support of 5 per cent of Constituency Labour Parties, or the support of at least three of the parties’ affiliates, at least two of which must be trades unions, and which must together make up at least 5 per cent of the party’s total affiliates. In practice that means you need two trades unions and another affiliate, such as the Jewish Labour Movement or the Socialist Environment and Resources Association,  to make the ballot if getting on via the affiliates route. If you are seeking to get on via the constituency route, you need 32 constituency nominations, because the party in Scotland organises itself on the basis of Holyrood constituencies not Westminster constituencies, and Northern Ireland counts as a single constituency. Candidates who clear those hurdles progress to the final ballot of Labour party members.  

The first stage of the contest will take place over the next week, as would-be candidates will have to seek nominations from the parliamentary parties in the Westminster and European Parliaments. That phase of the contest will end on 13 January.

Any candidates who secure 22 or more nominations from the parliamentary parties will then have a month to secure the nominations they need to make the ballot proper. Whoever is left standing at that stage will advance to the contest’s third and final phase: a one member, one vote contest comprising Labour’s due-paying members, members of the party’s various affiliates, and registered supporters, who will, as in 2016, have a 48-hour window in which they can pay £25 to vote in the party’s leadership race.  

What does it all mean? Well, as far as the two top-tier candidates are concerned – Rebecca Long-Bailey and Keir Starmer – not a great deal. These are candidates with a strong base of support in the parliamentary party, institutional support among the party’s power brokers and a power base in the membership. Both candidates are near certain to get the 22 nominations they need to make the ballot proper and certain to reach the ballot either via the support of trades unions or via CLP nominations.

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But it may make a difference for the second-tier candidates, who do not have the same depth of support as Starmer and Long-Bailey. If they are going to make the ballot it will be because they get on via the CLP route. The nightmare for those candidates – Jess Philips, Lisa Nandy, Clive Lewis and Emily Thornberry – is that if they are all looking to get on via that route, they are likely to cancel each other out.

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So it maximises the chances that the contest will be broader than just Starmer and Long-Bailey. The candidate who is best served by that is Philips – she has a base of support in the PLP and is highly likely to get the 22 names she needs from MPs. Because she has set herself out as occupying an ideologically distinct position from Starmer and Long-Bailey she is less vulnerable to direct defections, and her supporters are the least likely to opt for a candidate with a better chance of winning the contest itself. Thornberry, Lewis and Nandy are all, in different ways, more at risk of losing parliamentary supporters to the top-tier candidates and may struggle to make it past the parliamentary stage.

But for all four candidates whose path to the ballot is not certain, this change maximises the chances of them reaching the next stage: and neither Starmer, the frontrunner according to the only poll of the race, nor Long-Bailey, who enjoys the most institutional support, can be certain they won’t live to regret that.