In case members of the Labour Party were growing anxious about not having had the chance to vote on anything for a few weeks, the Party has recently obliged by providing a bonanza of internal elections – to the party’s ruling National Executive Committee and, for those in the Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham regions, to select the Party’s candidates for new Metro Mayors.
Whatever else one might say about Labour’s current travails, it seems the Party’s internal democracy has rarely, if ever, been in such rude health.
Take the NEC election results: when these were last contested in 2014, just over 24,000 votes was enough to see Johanna Baxter take sixth place and secure the last slot on the Committee. This time, the same tally would have been good enough for fifteenth spot. Baxter, one of the ‘moderate’ (i.e. not ‘Corbynite’) candidates more than doubled her vote since 2014 to over 60,000 but came only tenth.
The slate of Momentum-friendly candidates occupied all of the top 6 spots, securing a clean sweep in this round of NEC elections. The candidate who topped the ballot, Ann Black, secured over 100,000 votes. To put that in context, had the Conservative leadership contest lasted long enough to go to the Tory membership, Theresa May would have had to secure circa 65% of the vote to achieve a similar number. Or, to put it another way, 3 times as many people voted for Ann Black as voted in last year’s Lib Dem leadership election. (Sorry Tim!)
The NEC results only served to underline the scale of the task facing Owen Smith as he seeks to de-throne Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour membership has swollen significantly in the past year and the clear majority of the recent joiners are true-believers in the Corbyn project. The High Court ruling which overturned the Labour Party’s decision that members who joined after 12th January this year would be excluded from the contest is only likely to have strengthened the Corbyn hand further.
Owen Smith has called on the contest to be extended, in the hope that if given more time he can win over more of the ‘soft’ Corbyn supporters who might be persuaded by Smith’s argument that Corbyn cannot deliver success at the ballot box. It is difficult to escape the conclusion however that Smith would merely be prolonging the period for which he has to swim against the tide before ultimately being swept away.
So, what of the Mayoral selections? Might they provide any glimmers of hope to the leadership challenger?
At first glance, one might conclude that the victory of Andy Burnham, himself blown away by Corbynmania last year, could provide cause for cheer. Burnham is not of the hard left and, indeed, was once upon a time considered a ‘Blairite’ – the ultimate Corbynista no-no. But two factors should temper any encouragement that Smith supporters may draw: one, there was no obvious Corbyn-esque candidate in this contest and Burnham may simply have benefitted from his refusal to join in the anti-Corbyn resignations from the Shadow Cabinet; and two, fewer than 7,500 votes were cast in this selection. Wherever those 100,000+ NEC voters live it is not, it seems, Greater Manchester.
In Liverpool, Corbyn’s Parliamentary Private Secretary Steve Rotherham prevailed over incumbent Mayor Joe Anderson and the Liverpool Wavertree MP Luciana Berger. Rotherham’s success should not be attributed solely to his ties to Corbyn – he is a popular local MP who is a former Lord Mayor of the city and has been a passionate campaigner for justice for Hillsborough families – but it certainly can’t have hurt his chances. Again however, the size of the selectorate was small – fewer than 5,000 votes on a 72% turnout. The huge growth in membership does not seem to have hit Merseyside either.
In Birmingham, Sion Simon MEP secured 71% of the 3,800 votes cast, comfortably besting his rival, former Councillor Steve Bedser. Again, neither man (and yes, again Labour has chosen all men) was aligned to the far left of the Party and so it is difficult to read too much into the result from the perspective of the national leadership contest.
But perhaps the most striking feature of these selections is that the combined electorate was only around 16,000, across three of the country’s largest city regions. Given the huge turnout to the NEC elections and the growth in the Party’s membership to over 500,000 nationally, this seems a surprisingly low figure across three major population centres, at least two of which are considered staunch Labour heartlands.
It begs the question – is the Labour membership base increasingly London-dominated? Even last year, before the membership spurt, almost 88,000 votes were cast in the first round of Labour’s London Mayoral selection which saw Sadiq Khan prevail – approximately five times as many votes as were cast in the three contests decided this week.
This could pose real challenges for Labour as it seeks to make the necessary electoral progress throughout the rest of the country. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters repeatedly trumpet the growth in party membership as a sign of their success and of the Party’s prospects to achieve future gains. But if this is being driven largely by growth in London, where Labour already holds the Mayoralty and a majority of Parliamentary constituencies, might this not entrench perceptions that Labour is an increasingly metropolitan, London-centric party, out of touch with its traditional working-class support bases in the North, Wales, Scotland and elsewhere?
The signs are clear that Jeremy Corbyn is well on course for re-election – possibly with more votes than he achieved last year. But, if indeed he is returned, he should think carefully about how he ensures the Party is in a position to grow both its membership and – more importantly – its support in the country outwith the M25.