CLP nominations obscure how close the leadership race really is

Luke Akehurst

So we’ve reached the end of the supporting nomination stage of Labour’s Leadership election. The headline figures on the CLP side are lopsidedly in favour of Jeremy Corbyn – 285 CLP nominations versus 53 for Owen Smith. But there are some important pinches of salt to be taken with this apparent landslide.

There’s intuitive common sense. Corbyn got 152 nominations last year. Is anyone really suggesting that after everything that has gone wrong during his period as leader, he is almost twice as popular among party members as he was?

We are also seeing the impact of the “Cube Rule”. This is proven impact of the first-past-the-post voting system where there are only two parties or candidates running (which therefore applies in the CLP nomination meetings as there are only two candidates) and means that the winning candidate gets over-represented in terms of constituencies won. We know from research done by the @CLPNominations Twitter feed that in the 95 per cent of CLPs that nominated where they have been able to obtain the voting figures, Corbyn got a total of 15066 votes and Smith 7585. That’s a ratio of almost exactly 2:1 not the 5:1 suggested by the CLP numbers.

One side – Corbyn’s – decided to take this part of the process very seriously and bothered mobilising centrally, deploying data collected last year to mobilise people to attend these meetings, for many of them the first meeting they had ever been to. But the grand total of people they managed to turn out still only 15000 out of over 400000 members – under 4 per cent.

The other side – Smith’s – didn’t mobilise for this stage of the process and decided to prioritise canvassing of the wider selectorate instead. They knew that Corbyn started with all his data from last year so they decided to focus on matching that data collection rather than playing, and giving credibility to, a game that was stacked against them. But they still got 7585 votes – about 2 per cent of party members. So that leaves 94 per cent of members who didn’t go to a CLP nomination meeting.

Corbyn may have got a headline 84 per cent of CLPs that nominated but he only got 45 per cent of the total number of CLPs that could have nominated. 294 CLPs didn’t nominate at all. The evidence suggests these were disproportionately CLPs that are less pro-Corbyn. This makes sense because of the stance taken by the two sides – the Corbyn campaign were doing everything they could to get the CLPs where they have influence to meet and nominate as they saw CLP nomination meetings as vital to building momentum (with a small and big M) nationally, and by providing a meeting place and a local victory, locally. The Smith campaign seem to have been telling the CLPs where they had most influence not to bother meeting and lending credibility to an unnecessary part of the process.

The pattern is clear from the maps on @CLPNominations – solid blocks of large rural CLPs, especially in the South West for Corbyn, in exactly the same pattern the left got in the NEC elections, large parts of urban Britain outside London, where most of our MPs are, that didn’t nominate. 20 CLPs in the urban West Midlands did not nominate. Nor did 16 in the Labour heartland of South Wales, where Owen Smith might be expected go be disproportionately popular as a local MP.

I looked at the behaviour of the 107 CLPs that nominated me for the NEC just a couple of months ago, taking these as a proxy for the behaviour of the moderate wing of the party in general – if you nominated Akehurst in 2016 you must be among the praetorian guard of anti-Corbynism (with some honourable exceptions like the two Oxford CLPs which are pretty left-leaning but were kind to me as a local activist). The pattern is very stark. 72 of the 107 CLPs that nominated me did not nominate at all. That’s quite remarkable – they nominated for a relatively obscure election for the NEC, but not for party leader!

They effectively boycotted the process either through not wanting to give it credibility, or concerns about a nomination causing disunity, or worries that the disruption and allegations of intimidation at some of the CLP meetings in July would make the whole thing too unpleasant to bother with.

Additionally, of the 53 CLPs that did nominate Smith, only 11 come from the 107 “core moderate” CLPs that nominated me. The other 42 look like places where Owen’s left credentials and policies have made him more popular than our NEC slate (or at least I) was. This suggests he can succeed in winning over some of the softer end of Corbyn’s previous support.

The numbers participating in these nomination meetings are massively lower (perhaps 6 per cent versus 33 per cent turnout) than in the NEC ballot, where the left slate secured a lower 55 per cent of the vote, unchanged from 2014, and their bottom candidate was only ahead of the leading moderate by 81000 votes to 72000.

We don’t know and can’t extrapolate from the CLP nomination meetings what the actual support is for Corbyn and Smith among party members. But we do know from the NEC ballot that participants in even a lower turnout ballot are less pro-Corbyn than people who turn up to nomination meetings.

Corbyn got 49.5 per cent of full members’ votes in 2015. The puzzle is whether the number of members who voted for Corbyn in 2015 but are disillusioned by him and the number who find Smith more attractive than the 3 non-Corbyn candidates last year now exceeds the net effect of number of members who joined between his victory and the 12 January freeze date because they support him and the number of moderates who quit. Though churn will mean some of his new member already had votes last year as Registered Supporters and some of the moderate members who resigned have in turn come back into the voting pool as Registered Supporters…

In the other two categories of voters I think we can confidently say there will have been significant movement away from Corbyn since 2015.

Among Registered Supporters there was no recruitment effort to speak of by the three moderate candidates in 2015, resulting in an 84 per cent win for Corbyn. This is clearly not the case this year when Saving Labour acted as a moderate recruiting campaign, claiming to be responsible for 70000 sign-ups, and the £25 fee will have deterred some of the less committed support for Corbyn, including presumably malicious sign-ups by Tories wanting to lumber Labour with a weak leader for £3.

Similarly among Affiliated Supporters, Corbyn got 58 per cent last year, aided by the fact that only Unite of the major unions really prioritised recruitment. This year the evidence suggests a different picture. Saving Labour say they signed up as many as 50000 of the estimated 70000 new voters in this category. The GMB has fallen out with Corbyn spectacularly over Trident and in private over other industrial issues that affect their members. They balloted their members, resulting in a thumping 25969 to 17450 victory for Owen Smith. The union therefore has a mandate to campaign all out for Smith. We know from the 2010 leadership election where they backed Ed Miliband that when they do nominate a candidate they fight hard for them. Unison’s leadership also distrust Corbyn after perceptions of interference against Dave Prentis in his General Secretary reelection. Their ballot resulted in a narrow win for Corbyn (10699 to 7720). I suspect they will interpret the result as a mandate to campaign as hard for Corbyn as they did in 2015 – I.e. stick in a nomination and do nothing else. Unite didn’t ballot their members, perhaps fearing the impact of the Trident debate on their own substantial membership in the defence sector.

Aggregating the three sets of data we have – the CLP meetings, GMB ballot and Unison ballot, produces a total of 43215 votes for Corbyn and 41274 for Smith. That’s a 51-49 per cent split.

I don’t claim Smith is ahead. Clearly Corbyn remains the favourite. But I think this is a more competitive race than much commentary is predicting.

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