The pattern of nominations by Labour MPs for the leadership and deputy leadership contests indicates that a number of distinct factions are emerging within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Such groupings are likely to be indicative of distinctive political and ideological positions. A split that opened after the 2010 Labour leadership contest around David Miliband and his brother Ed appears to be hardening into cohesive but dissimilar clusters, argue Hugh Pemberton and Mark Wickham-Jones in this article.
The split between David and Ed Miliband in 2010 has been taken as emblematic of a significant divide in Labour’s outlook. Yet at the time of the 2010 leadership election the split was not immediately obvious: 72 Labour MPs, nearly a quarter of the Parliamentary Labour Party, voted for David and Ed in their first and second choices, including the two brothers themselves. That hardly suggested a significant degree of factionalisation. In retrospect, however, the division subsequently became clearer as the party’s trajectory between 2010 and 2015 took it further from some of the defining features of Blair’s project.
Looking at the PLP after the 2015 general election we find 165 Members of Parliament who took part in the 2010 Labour leadership and remain in the House of Commons. Not all of these nominated for the 2015 leadership elections. Of the 72 Labour MPs who voted for David Miliband in 2010, 28 went on to endorse Liz Kendall, often identified in some sense as a Blairite candidate, in 2015. Nearly seventy per cent of her nominations (41 in total) came from this group. At the same time, only a handful of those who had voted for Ed Miliband went on to nominate Kendall. While Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper picked up support from across the party, Kendall’s nominations were heavily shaped by the position her backers had adopted in the 2010 contest.
It is harder to read Jeremy Corbyn’s nominations with certainty since around half were made in the last twenty four hours before nominations closed, some simply to get him on the ballot. Nevertheless, only one of the eighteen nominating him before the last morning had voted for David Miliband in 2010.
Although a bit more diffuse, the pattern for the deputy leadership indicates similarities. While Tom Watson succeeded in picking up support across the party, two of the other candidates, Stella Creasy and Caroline Flint picked up much of their support from those that had voted for David Miliband five years earlier, 12 and 23 MPs respectively.
The table below shows how nominations were distributed between leader and deputy leader.
Table 1: Leader / Deputy leader slate nominations in 2015
Looking at clusters in these nominations across the Parliamentary Labour Party, we find three groups in particular: two groupings are linked to Tom Watson’s bid for the deputy leadership, one with Andy Burnham (10 per cent of the PLP) and one with Yvette Cooper (9 per cent), the latter having a base with nine MPs who voted for Ed Balls in 2010. Alongside these, is a Kendall/Flint combination (8 per cent of the PLP) with a base (14 MPs) in David Miliband’s bid for the leadership.
It is striking that candidates perceived to be located on the ideological right on the PLP did not do well in attracting support from newly elected Labour MPs. Jeremy Corbyn received far more support from this group than did Liz Kendall. To be sure, some of Corbyn’s nominations may have been artificial. But 13 of the 2015 entry backed him: only 3 of that group supported Kendall. Only 6 backed Caroline Flint to be deputy (while 11 nominated Stella Creasy). Among these new MPs, the Kendall/Flint combination falls to just 2 per cent of the total (from 8 per cent for the PLP as a whole).
It is also by no means clear that Corbyn’s candidacy was as artificial as Dianne Abbott’s was in 2010. On the final morning before nominations closed in that contest she had just 11 nominations. This year Corbyn had 18 (and needed to meet a slightly higher threshold). Moreover, the rules of the contest were modified slightly so that having made a nomination MPs were not allowed to reallocate it unless a candidate formally withdrew, as was the case with Mary Creagh. In 2010 such reallocations helped Abbott to meet the threshold. In 2015 they did not happen in the same manner and some MPs may have waited until the last minute to see whether Corbyn might be a viable candidate. Labour will publish MPs’ voting preferences in September: the evidence so far suggests Corbyn will do significantly better than the derisory seven that Abbott received from the PLP five years ago.
None of this analysis is especially good news for Labour. One of the key tasks of the new leader will be to unite the Parliamentary Labour party around an agreed strategy that bonds its different elements together at the same time as appealing to voters in sufficient numbers to improve the party’s electoral prospects. The development of distinct clusters within the PLP can only make that job tougher as different political and ideological positions harden amongst Labour MPs.
Mark Wickham-Jones is Professor of Political Science, SPAIS, University of Bristol; Factionalism in the Parliamentary Labour Party and the 2015 Leadership Contest will be published in the next issue of Renewal.