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Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition

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It seems trite to write about the shattered opposition party in a second-tier country during the age of pandemics and Tiger Kings, but the Labour Party will announce Jeremy Corbyn’s successor via email this morning. This is a contest that Sir Kier Starmer should win, and do so convincingly; the only real question is whether or not he wins on the “first ballot” (we use the Alternative Vote to elect the leader and deputy leader, so we rank-order the candidates. With only three standing for the office, there wasn’t a whole lot of sophistication involved). Starmer won, by a significant margin, the local party endorsement battle, and both You Gov polls estimate an easy Starmer victory. Noteworthy, in both the polling and the Constituency Labour Party endorsement ballots, the second preferences of Lisa Nandy overwhelmingly flow to Starmer, and not to the anointed Continuity Corbyn candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey. In my CLP, Starmer received 40 first rank votes out of the 93 cast, Long-Bailey 28, and a further 25 divided between Nandy and Emily Thornberry. Starmer won our endorsement on the third round of voting, and Long-Bailey only acquired the transfer vote of one of the 25 local members who voted for Nandy or Thornberry first. The other two Plymouth constituency parties narrowly endorsed Long-Bailey, but on a tie-breaker; in both cases Long-Bailey and Starmer ended up dead even in final round preferences, and Long-Bailey received the endorsement in both because she had more first rank votes.

While it’s shockingly easy to write this now, I’m not surprised. Before the debacle of the last general election, many moderates in the party assumed that Corbyn would simply hand-pick his successor (and he likely could have done following the 2017 General Election) and Corbynism would continue on unabated. A minority view was that the Corbyn-attracted membership consisted predominantly of idealists, who favoured a return to a left-ish politics with substance, and to a lesser extent ideologues, who are motley collection of hard-left former Militant Tendency members, Trotskyists, some Greens, and the starry-eyed who largely avoided politics but became enamoured with Corbyn and readily became the core Cult. (In other words, one could have supported Corbyn in theory, but not been a member of the Cult). The idealists were always going to be open to persuasion, and if the right set of variables were in play, could be open to going off in a non-Corbynite direction.

The absurdly crushing defeat in December’s general election provided one of the variables. That result largely discredited Momentum as an effective slating and endorsing platform (but for two to three years, they were absolutely masterful at slating and endorsing, branding Corbyn as a heuristic for internal party elections, signalling to the broader, otherwise disinterested membership which otherwise utterly anonymous candidates should receive their vote for seemingly obscure internal party offices) and also suggested the need to distance themselves from Corbyn, the personality.

This wasn’t enough, however. The second variable was the need for a leadership candidate who had some degree of visibility, and Starmer, in holding the shadow Brexit brief in Corbyn’s administration, had significant name recognition to the broader membership when contrasted to most of his peers. A guiding principle in voter behaviour is that while some people think about politics some of the time, for the overwhelming majority, politics is simply background noise. One would expect this to diminish in a self-selected pool of dues paying party members, but the principle applies. Most of the Labour Party members were, at best, only vaguely aware of Lisa Nandy prior to this leadership election (and most of those were probably cult members who blame her for betrayal in walking out on the Corbyn front bench following the referendum in 2016). Starmer, however, given the visibility of his front bench position, and that he was perceived to be on the “right side” of the internal Brexit debate in the Labour Party. Starmer had a chance to cut through, and it would appear that he has.

The larger question is what will Starmer do with his new role. Some of that depends on what happens in down-ballot races, specifically those three positions to the National Executive Committee. Stephen Pollard’s piece yesterday is a polemical call to arms for purging the party of the Corbynite left, and he suggests a roadblock standing in the way of Starmer doing so is the NEC:

It’s obvious why he won’t. For one thing, the hard Left now dominates Labour’s National Executive Committee by 21 votes to 13 (with two places up for election).

By my count, Starmer comes in with four new votes on this body, as the leader plus three members of the shadow cabinet serve on it. The results of the three NEC positions also being announced this morning make that a possible swing of seven (and there’s the deputy leader as well). It’s all to play for in the NEC, in other words.

The other variable that could influence the degree to which a Starmer leadership — assuming, of course, he wins — actually executes the purge that the leading lights of Corbynism fear could be the scale of his victory. One of the numerous annoying traits of the Cult in the past four years has been the mantra to “respect the mandate” whenever anybody dared to suggest a lack of perfection in Corbyn. If it goes to second preferences, as it very well might, we will be seeing a lot of this before the Cult finally decide it’s no longer fun and go off to find a new hobby:

I cast my first preference for Starmer the day ballots dropped, in part because of the need to crush any hope that the Cult still possesses. Many moderates in the party whom I know are unsure that Starmer will do what needs to be done with the Cult, and while Nandy was more convincing in this regard during the course of the brief leadership campaign (It seems like it kicked off five years ago), she wasn’t going to win, so a second place vote for Starmer only increases the probability of him winning on second prefs. I would likely have voted Starmer first strategically even had my preferred candidate, Jess Phillips, made it through the various hurdles between a candidate and the actual balloting of the membership. It appears that he is going to win, but it would help if it is a crushing victory.

We’ll see in about one hour.

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