Next Labour Leader: History says to beware early market signals

Labour MP Clive Lewis
Clive Lewis could be underestimated by the early betting

Keir Starmer is now odds-on to be Next Labour Leader but, as Paul Krishnamurty explains, this has not been a good position to hold in recent contests...

"It would be a mistake to assume a repeat of 2015 dynamics. There is no candidate of the Left who can boast anything like the ‘medals’ Corbyn earned in decades of protesting wars, apartheid, poverty."

The Labour leadership contest has a clear front-runner. Keir Starmer isn't the first to trade at odds-on to succeed Jeremy Corbyn - Rebecca Long Bailey did so before Christmas, as did Owen Smith back in 2016. However the former Director of Public Prosecutions is the first to hold this position in the betting based on polling data.

How serious should we take what is merely an early signal, given that the field is not complete and no result expected until at least March? We have only had two Labour leadership, and one deputy leadership, contests in the past quarter-century and, on each occasion, the betting markets proved wrong.

Every early Labour favourite this century lost

When Tony Blair stood down in 2007, Gordon Brown never faced a contest because his sole challenger, John McDonnell, couldn't muster enough MP support to trigger one. Instead there was a six-runner contest to be deputy. The 14/1 outsider Harriet Harman won (amid much sneering from media that failed to predict it). Opening favourite Hilary Benn never got competitive while Alan Johnson was backed very short (sub 1.1 if memory serves).

After Brown lost in 2010, Harman stayed in post while five candidates ran for leader. David Miliband was widely tipped and built up a big early advantage in terms of endorsements. The former Foreign Secretary was odds-on from the start and around 1.21/5 during the final week, only to fall short against his brother Ed, and spark a 'what if' debate that persists to this day.

Then in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn pulled off the mother of all political betting upsets. When I tipped him on these pages within minutes of obtaining enough MP endorsements, the veteran left-winger was a 25.024/1 chance. It took several weeks before media and markets began to catch up.

Media narratives often misread party members

In each case, the disconnect between commentators and voters was apparent. A failure to recognise the golden rule of party leadership contests - to understand the perspective of members, as opposed to media pundits, or average elector.

Harman won the deputy contest by being prepared to criticise the war in Iraq and other aspects of the Blair administration. Johnson lost by defending the status quo to an audience amongst whom a large number wanted a significant change of direction.

Ditto the Miliband dual. Ed won by saying he was against the Iraq war and tuition fees. David failed to recognise the desire among an increasingly hollowed out, dejected membership to move on from the New Labour years.

Those dynamics counted double for Corbyn's victory. As the movement pored over a catastrophic electoral defeat, his relatively centrist rivals completely misjudged the mood when abstaining on the deeper welfare cuts proposed by the Tories. The contest became triangulation versus principle, opportunism versus authenticity. Easy pickings for a veteran activist with medals to his name.

Corbynmania will be impossible to replicate

It would be a mistake to assume a repeat of 2015 dynamics. There is no candidate of the Left who can boast anything like the 'medals' Corbyn earned in decades of protesting wars, apartheid, poverty.

He won for various reasons. His personal image and 'change' rhetoric attracted thousands of people to join. He was offering a different tack to one which had failed at the ballot box.

Rebecca Long Bailey or Ian Lavery simply don't have the personal brand or pedigree to repeat that. They are merely cheerleaders for a strategy that has now failed, spectacularly.

Membership is less extreme than media legend

Also, avoid simplistic media labelling of the Labour electorate as 'hard Left' or 'woke'. 38% voted for Owen Smith in the least likely of circumstances - a largely unknown, weak candidate, trying to usurp a leader who had been elected with 60% less than two years previously. We will never know how a heavyweight like Tom Watson might have fared.

A better way, in my view, to define the Labour audience is younger, more progressive types, engaged in politics and fundamentally opposed to the Tories. They are socially liberal, internationalist, environmentalist. Anyone whose pitch emphasises those values has potential.

Over the next three months, the post-mortem into that defeat and search for solutions will persist. Lisa Nandy and Clive Lewis both have interesting, albeit contrary, arguments to make here. The former wants to reconnect the towns and cities, Leigh and Lewisham. The latter to build a progressive alliance with other non-Tory parties.

Electability argument favours Starmer

My instinct is that, staring at years, even decades more in opposition, electability will be more important this time. Right now Labour need to start appearing competent and less extreme. That would favour Starmer but the likes of Nandy and Jess Phillips are staking out similar territory.

At this early stage I wouldn't back or lay Starmer at 1.84/5. He's the right favourite, the one to beat, but not without weaknesses, as discussed previously.

History suggests we should look for value alternatives. Lewis could be the one. He is firmly on the Left but offers a more intelligent critique than Long Bailey or the electoral suicide note Lavery. He is lesser known than the front-runners and liable to get a bounce once hustings start in earnest. Odds of 42.041/1 offer trading potential.

Follow Paul on Twitter and check out his website, Political Gambler.

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