Skip to main content
ABC News
UK: Labour Leadership Battle is Brewing

Behind the scenes of the UK general election this spring, another political skirmish was underway. With their electoral campaign deeply endangered by falling poll numbers, several senior Labour MPs, ostensibly in cahoots with some ambitious Labour frontbenchers, launched a bid against then Prime Minister Gordon Brown for the reins of the Party. While the January ‘coup’ attempt failed, leaving the media to speculate that then Foreign Secretary David Miliband was waiting in the breach to succeed Brown, it became clearer than ever than Brown’s days as Labour leader were numbered.

Five days after the May 6th election, Brown did indeed step down, ending a stretch of 25 years as a senior figure within Labour, from his appointment as Shadow Secretary for Trade in 1985 to his 10 years as Chancellor (1997-2007) and 3 final years as Prime Minister. Having lost their first election in four cycles, Labour watched painfully as David Cameron’s Tories and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats formed the first coalition government since Churchill’s multi-party cabinet during World War II.

Wasting little time, the ever-eager David Miliband annouced the day after Brown’s resignation that he would stand for the party’s leadership election, which will be held in the month preceding the annual Labour Party Conference scheduled for the end of September. After two agonizing days, his brother Ed, the outgoing Energy Secretary, announced that he would challenge the elder Miliband in the leadership contest, ensuring the race would have no shortage of drama.

In the week following, four other candidates announced their intention to run, though the overall slate was reduced to five when the John McDonnell (chair of the left-wing Socialist Campaign Group) deferred to fellow lefty Diane Abbott*, the only non-white candidate and only woman running for the post. Within days of the others, Ed Balls, Gordon Brown’s close ally and Secretary of Education and Andy Burnham, Brown’s short-lived second Secretary of Health, joined the fray.

As, it seems, with many other electoral processes to determine the internal direction of a political party, the Labour leadership election has all the requisite layers of complexity and opportunities for inside baseball.

In this case, the Labour electorate is split into three parts, which each have one third of the overall vote share.

First there are the Labour party’s Members of Parliament, including the House of Commons, the European Parliament and the House of Lords. The second third of the votes come from Labour’s party membership, which fluxuates in number from month to month and election to election, ranging from more than 400,000 in 1997 to just under 180,000 in 2007. Finally, there are the members of the Labour Party’s several hundred supportive trade unions, along with a few dozen recognized Socialist Societies, which together have about 7 million voting members. This figure is a range because according to recent studies, while there are about 7 million trade union members, at least 1.6 million are not actually covered by collective bargaining agreements (‘legacy’ unions, if you will). Of these, about 3 million are with unions officially affiliated with the Labour party.

If that were not complex enough, the system uses ranked voting/instant run-off to adjudicate the contest, meaning that weaker candidates are eliminated and their lower preference votes redistributed if no candidate receives a first-preference majority — something is very likely to occur. As a result, there is talk of candidates offering second preference endorsements to each other in exchange for political favors down the road.

All in all, David Miliband looks to be in the strongest position at the moment, with the highest overall name recognition, thanks to his years as Foreign Secretary, and the tacit support of many parts of the Blair-ite Labour Party establishment. Ed Miliband, dubbed “The Insurgent” by a the well-known left-wing UK magazine The New Statesman, is running the strongest challenger’s campaign, using his popularity in the blogosphere and among younger party members to mount a strong campaign. In the last week he blasted an SMS request for volunteers and supporters to Labour party members, netting his campaign more than a thousand new volunteers.

What remains unclear, however, is how much this leadership campaign represents an internal smoky-room affair among the seniormost members of the Labour movement, jockeying amongst themselves for the best spot in the revamped Labour Party, and how much a true bottom-up balloting. While will certainly be a trial balloon process for center-left voters to react to various leadership options, the perception that internal party politics is a relatively closed-door, highly technical process continues to pervade. Particularly as the supposed party of working class, with their most likely winners among the innermost political elites, this is a perception they will have to work to dispell in order win back 10 Downing Street in the next election.

Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international affairs columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at

*To be on the ballot for the Labour leadership contest, one must receive a formal nomination from at least 12.5% of the Labour MPs, in this case 33. Because David and Ed Miliband scarfed up so many in short order (in all 81 and 63, respectively), it became impossible for the remaining candidates to all take 33. In the Balls, Burnham and Abbott each received the minimum of 33, after McDonnell left the race.