Factionalism in the Parliamentary Labour Party and the 2015 leadership contest.

Author:Pemberton, Hugh
Position::GUEST EDITORIAL
 
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Close analysis of the nominations for Labour's leader and deputy reveals a parliamentary party fracturing along sharper ideological lines than were evident in 2010.

What do nominations for the posts of Labour leader and deputy leader tell us about the state of the party? Do they suggest the existence of different ideological and political groupings within Labour? Or is there a more general and diffuse distribution to endorsements? Under the Collins reforms to the party's structure, voted on and passed by a special conference in March 2014, those wishing to be candidates for either leadership post need to be publicly nominated by 15 per cent of Labour Members of Parliament (MPs) in the House of Commons (Collins, 2014). Any viable contender for the post needed to mobilise sufficient support to meet that threshold. In the case of the two 2015 contests, with a Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) of 232 MPs, the threshold was 35. By the time nominations closed for the leadership at 12.00 noon on Monday 15 June 2015, four candidates had made the final ballot: Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Jeremy Corbyn, and Liz Kendall. When nominations closed two days later for the deputy leadership, five aspirants had made it: Ben Bradshaw, Stella Creasy, Angela Eagle, Caroline Flint, and Tom Watson.

In this article, we examine nominations for the leadership and deputy leadership in 2015 to evaluate what they reveal about the state of the Labour Party. In particular, we ask whether patterns in nominations reveal the existence of ideological divisions within the party. Do discrete factions exist within the PLP? By faction, we do not mean an organised structured grouping with a distinct internal institutional framework and rules of membership. Rather we see factions as clusters of MPs sharing a similar political and ideological outlook whilst acting, for the most part, in a collectively consistent manner. In the first part of the article we look at how voting in the 2010 Labour leadership aligned with nominations for the two contests in 2015. We then go on to examine potential groupings between the supporters of the different candidates for the posts of leader and deputy. We compare and contrast the configuration of nominations between the two contests to determine whether particular groupings endorsed different candidates for each. Last, we consider the possible ideological basis of any clusters. We look at the roles that a close identification with Labour's affiliated unions, including financial contributions to an MP's constituency on the one hand, and the role of Progress, as an internal group within the party on the other, may have had in shaping distinct and contrasting ideological orientations.

The alignment between the 2010 Labour leadership contest and the 2015 leadership election

Following the outcome of the 2015 general election, 165 Labour MPs who took part in the 2010 leadership contest remained in the House of Commons (along side two colleagues who had not voted--Harriet Harman and Nick Brown). How did their nominations in 2015 compare to their first choice votes in 2010 and can we detect evidence that those nominations indicate that factionalism has become more significant since 2010?

What do we learn from the nominations detailed in Table 2? Such endorsements are clearly an important public statement. However, they need interpreting with some care. Nominations need not reflect direct ideological alignment (MPs might support a colleague for personal reasons). In particular, some of the support offered to Jeremy Corbyn, standing on an anti-austerity ticket, needs to be assessed with caution. A late and rather reluctant entrant to the contest, joining the other aspirants on 3 June 2015, Corbyn struggled to meet the 35 MPs threshold and did so only a few moments before nominations closed: manifestly a number of those supporting him did so to assist him in making the ballot and not because they endorsed his political position. Nominations had opened on Tuesday 9 June but by Friday 12 June, four days later, Corbyn had less than half the number needed: the remaining endorsements, many coming on the Monday morning immediately before nominations closed at noon, 15 June, may be artificial. (However, in contrast to the 2010 contest, MPs were not allowed to revoke a nomination and reallocate it unless the nominee formally withdrew from the contest: Labour Party, 2015b, clause B14).

Noting these broad points, a number of details are worth noting from Table 2. First, the importance of David Miliband's supporters for Liz Kendall's 2015 campaign is manifest. Nearly 70 per cent of all of those nominating Kendall (returning MPs and new entrants alike) had voted for David as their first choice candidate in 2010 and if we restrict the analysis to those who had voted in the earlier contest, the proportion was higher still at around 75 per cent.

Second, support for the other candidates in 2015 appears to be more diffuse amongst those who had expressed their opinion in 2010. Only 11 MPs survived who had given Andy Burnham their first choice in 2010: he held on to nine of them in nominations for 2015. But Burnham also picked up support from those who voted for Ed Balls and Ed Miliband as their first preferences in 2010. Clearly Burnham's position has been transformed from that of a rather weak 'also ran' campaigning largely on the basis of his local roots in 2010 to that of frontrunner by 2015 (see discussion in R. J. Johnston et al., 2015a). Relatively few of David Miliband's advocates endorsed Burnham five years later.

Third, the biggest group backing Cooper's campaign came from those who had voted for Ed Balls, her husband, as first choice in 2010. At 80 per cent, a bigger proportion of Balls's supporters remained in the Commons than with the other 2010 candidates (though, not of course, the candidate himself). Nearly half of these, 15 out of 32, backed Cooper. She also picked up support from those who had backed David and Ed Miliband as well as Ed Balls.

Fourth, discounting Jeremy Corbyn's nominations from the last day or so, the picture of support for him is as follows. All of those remaining MPs who voted for Abbott as first choice in 2010 nominated him (just four in total). He picked up a further five who voted for Ed Miliband, alongside one each who voted for Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and David Miliband.

The overall pattern thus suggests a degree of ideological consistency. In 2010 a YouGov/ Sunday Times poll asked the party members to place the then Labour leadership candidates on a left right scale running from -100 (very left-wing politics) to 0 (centre) and on to 100 (very right-wing politics). The members placed Abbott at -66, and David Miliband at -2. Between these outliers, they put Burnham at -32, Ed Miliband at -31 and Balls at -28 (see Quinn, 2012, 74-5). Tony Blair was located at +9. Labour-affiliated trade unionists gave a similar distribution, though Ed Miliband and Balls shared a position at -23. At the time of writing, the 2015 campaign lacks such polling data to locate candidates in terms of their ideological position. However, at the start of the contest, press commentators and others were quick to define Kendall as a moderniser on the right of the party: that is, in some way or other, as a Blairite candidate (see, for example, Merrick, 2015; LabourList, 2015a and Chakelian, 2015a). They identified Burnham as a candidate on the left of the party, one able to attract support from Labour's trade union affiliates. They suggested that Cooper located herself as a more centrist candidate in ideological terms. Jeremy Corbyn entered the contest explicitly as an anti-austerity candidate adopting a strong, left-wing line against any further cuts in public spending and claiming to be 'standing to give Labour Party members a voice' (LabourList, 2015b).

There is, accordingly, some ideological consistency across Labour within these positions in how support has transferred from first choice voting in 2010 to nominations in 2015. The same point can be made by analysing how David and Ed Miliband's support divided up five years later: as we have seen, the biggest chunk of David's votes went to Liz Kendall. Ed's support split largely between Burnham and Cooper. Relatively little of it went to Liz Kendall.

A last point concerns the 65 MPs who nominated...

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