Jeremy Corbyn’s overwhelming victory in the British Labour Party’s recent leadership election has given the party its most left-wing leader in its history. The outcome was completely unpredicted at the start of the contest, with the predominant view being that one of the moderate candidates – Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper or Liz Kendall – would triumph. So, why were the predictions all wrong and what ultimately explained this most surprising of results?
The standard academic explanation of leadership elections in the UK downplays the significance of institutional rules in favour of selection criteria applicable to an array of selectors, including legislators and party members (Stark 1996; Quinn 2012). This approach identifies three principal criteria used by selectors when choosing a candidate, and these criteria relate to parties’ ‘hierarchy of needs’. The first goal of a party is to achieve internal unity, which is a prerequisite for achieving its second-order goal of winning elections, and that in turn enables the third-order goal of entering government and implementing policies. Commensurate with these goals, selectors will judge leadership candidates on their perceived abilities to unite their parties, win elections and become effective prime ministers – in that order. The need for unity applies only in cases where a party is divided, otherwise electability is the key criterion. The winner of a leadership election will be the candidate deemed best able to unite his/her party (when that party is divided) or best able to deliver electoral success (when it is not divided). Institutional rules will be of only secondary importance. Research indicates this approach explains the overwhelming majority of UK leadership contests since the 1960s.
It completely fails to explain Labour’s 2015 contest. Corbyn was the weakest candidate on all three selection criteria. As a member of Labour’s far-left faction, he was least able to offer unity because he was unacceptable to large swathes of his party. Given the electoral unpopularity of most far-left policies – unilateral nuclear disarmament, pro-welfare, pro-immigration, high tax-and-spend – Corbyn was least likely to offer electability. And as a backbencher of 32 years, he had the weakest claims to be a prime minister-in-waiting.
His supporters were aware of these deficiencies, as indicated in a mid-contest poll of the Labour selectorate. While support for the three mainstream candidates followed what the traditional theory suggests, the basis of Corbyn’s support was different, with policy trumping unity and electability (Table 1).
Table 1: Labour Electors’ Motives for Supporting Each Candidate
Corbyn’s victory was built on a left-wing, anti-austerity insurgency in the Labour Party that few saw coming despite its gestation over the previous five years. While some have drawn parallels with Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, the analogy is not perfect. British voters have consistently accepted the necessity of public-spending cuts by a large majority. Anti-austerity sentiment is largely limited to parts of the left, particularly the trade unions. Yet these were the groups that would determine the Labour leadership contest. They were able to affect the result so dramatically because of Labour’s new leadership-selection system.
In 2014, Labour abandoned its old tripartite electoral college in which votes were evenly divided between MPs/MEPs, party members and trade unionists for a new system of one-member-one-vote. However, in addition to just individual party members being allowed to participate, so too were trade unionists who signed up as ‘affiliated supporters’. A new category of ‘registered supporters’ was also created, whereby members of the public could vote in the contest in return for paying £3 and confirming their agreement with Labour’s values. Spurred on by the unions and social-media campaigns, tens of thousands were continuing to sign up just days before the ballots were sent out.
The composition of Labour’s leadership selectorate was transformed over the summer. When the contest began, party membership was below 200,000. When the signing-up period ended, it had reached almost 300,000. In addition, there were over 140,000 affiliated supporters and 120,000 registered supporters eligible to vote, although some attempt was made to weed out Conservative trouble-makers and known supporters of far-left groups.
MPs’ votes were now worth the same as any other member, but as a concession, the new system required candidates to be nominated by 15% of Labour MPs (i.e. 35). Corbyn was struggling to reach the threshold, but in an astonishing act of self-destruction, at least 14 MPs nominated him despite not supporting him in order to ‘widen the debate’. He passed the threshold minutes before nominations closed. From that moment onwards, Labour MPs lost control of the contest and were powerless to stop the rising tide of ‘Corbynmania’ evident at his packed-out rallies.
When the final results came through, Corbyn’s support was strongest among registered supporters and weakest among full members, though he was still the most popular candidate among the latter (Table 2). The influx of new members and supporters played a major role in the contest. These new recruits overwhelmingly voted for Corbyn. They were a mix of idealistic youngsters, anti-austerity trade unionists and middle-aged left-wingers who had been alienated by Blair’s New Labour. They leaned strongly to the left. Thus, a post-contest YouGov poll discovered that 10% of eligible selectors had voted for the Greens in the 2015 general election. Of these, 92% backed Corbyn.
Table 2: Labour Leadership Election Result
While the new selection system and the loose voting-qualification requirements played a significant role in Corbyn’s success, they were not the only reasons. Even among longer-standing Labour members, Corbyn gained levels of support that were not available to the radical left in Labour’s previous leadership contest in 2010, despite a strong concentration of left-wing sentiment among party members at the time (Quinn 2012). The difference then was that both David Miliband and the eventual victor, Ed Miliband, were credible candidates who rated well on electability and competence (David more so than Ed). To some extent, ideology was trumped by electability in 2010.
The failure of the moderate candidates in 2015 partly reflected the perception that none of them looked like a clear election-winner or potential prime minister. Burnham and Cooper were low-profile figures from the last Labour government, while Kendall was largely unknown. Burnham had run for the leadership in 2010 but trailed in a poor fourth – hardly a strong endorsement for 2015. Moderate candidates who may have had more electoral appeal, such as Chuka Umunna or Dan Jarvis, declined to stand for a variety of personal reasons.
Compounding this weak line-up was a sense of fatalism that seemed to grip the Labour Party after its defeat in the general election. A hung parliament had been widely expected. Instead, the Conservatives secured a shock majority and finished 98 seats ahead of Labour. Given Labour also lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats to the SNP, the task of winning in 2020 looked harder than ever – regardless of the leader. With an uphill electoral battle facing the party and with no obvious election-winner among the leadership contestants, many existing Labour members appear to have voted along ideological grounds.
The new selection system and the loose qualification rules for selectors played important parts in transforming the composition of Labour’s selectorate. Most new recruits were from the left, determined to seize the opportunity to change Labour’s direction of ideological travel. In contrast, moderate voters had little interest in Labour after the general election, leaving the field clear for the left. But in addition to that, electability – or the absence of it – played a role too. The weak line up of candidates, along with a deep-seated despondency about Labour’s chances in 2020, diminished the salience of electability in this contest. Into the gap came the left-wing ideology that many existing Labour members already subscribed to, and with the boost and momentum provided by the left-wing sign-ups, the scene was set for Corbyn to achieve a seemingly impossible victory.