Shouldn’t Labour MPs just nominate the candidate they think is best for the job?

I’ve been intrigued these past couple of days to see the main Labour blogs fall over themselves to argue that the current three front-runners for the Labour leadership – now they have the MP nominations needed to be on the ballot – should urge their parliamentary colleagues to nominate one of the three also-ran contenders to ensure “the widest possible field of candidates in the leadership election”.

I can understand the principle behind the campaign, of course. Frankly, if I were in the shoes of a Labour member (as I was for a number of years), I would welcome a wider choice than the two Eds and two Milibands on offer.

But the idea that MPs should nominate a rival who otherwise cannot attract sufficient support strikes me as the most patronising tokenism imaginable.

Labour requires each contender to obtain nominations from 12.5% of MPs, which equates to 33 MPs. 33 out of a total nominating electorate of 257 really isn’t that many. As Tom Harris has pointedly remarked, with some justice, if the candidates “can’t secure the support of one in eight Labour colleagues, then on what basis can they claim to provide leadership for their party?”

As it happens, the nomination process for Labour leader isn’t so different to that which exists in the Lib Dems. While Labour requires nominations from 12.5% of MPs, the Lib Dems require 10% of MPs to nominate our candidates. However, as a party less hidebound by hierarchy, and less establishment than Labour, the Lib Dems also require that any candidate obtain the support of at least 200 party members from at least 20 different local parties.

In fact, the Lib Dems did, in our 2006 leadership election, allow our MPs to nominate more than one candidate – a loophole which Labour would appear to be keen to borrow. It invited ridicule, and the party rightly decided to ditch this provision by the time of our 2007 leadership election, allowing MPs to nominate only one candidate each for leader.

I have to ask those Labour bloggers calling for this special dispensation: what kind of party, what kind of candidate, would want a pity nomination?

Surely every Labour MP owes it to their own reputation, as well as to their party’s, to ensure the MPs nominated are those they feel to be best suited to the task of leading Labour?

I don’t suppose quoting Edmund Burke will win over those on the left, but, still, his words ring true, especially when those 90 Labour MPs yet to nominate come to consider the personal qualities necessary for the post of leader:

Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Labour members do, I feel, deserve a better, broader choice than the three candidates currently on offer. (Just as, incidentally, Lib Dem members deserved a better, broader choice than Nick Clegg or Chris Huhne in 2007).

But the idea that Labour MPs should feel emotionally blackmailed into nominating a colleague they feel is utterly unsuited to, and unsuitable for, the role of leader is ridiculous – even if it does offer the illusion of “the widest possible field”.

David Miliband’s populist pandering – suggesting he would use his own personal nomination to help a rival secure the necessary 33 MPs – is the kind of emetic posturing which displays, yet again, Labour’s unappealing habit of top-down patronage.

Labour MPs should do the right thing. It’s simple really: nominate the person they feel would do the best job of leading the party. You really do have to question the motives of anyone who would ask them to do anything other than that.

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  • I would sincerely hope Labour MPs would be smart enough to read liberal advice and go in directly the opposite direction. Nominating a candidate isn’t a nomination for leadership- it is a recognition that the debate that will ensue should include them.

    MPs aren’t nominating leaders, they are nominating for inclusion in the competition to elect a leader. So if an MP thinks a candidate should be in the debate but not leader, they should nominate them. When it comes to voting for a leader, they can vote for who they want as leader. That isn’t what this is.

  • Sunder Katwala 5th Jun '10 - 11:15am

    My call was for the candidates to carry on collecting declarations of support, but not further formal nominations. that arms race is unhealthy given the structure of the contest, and is one reason we did not have a contested election in 2007. It is then up to the MPs what they do.

    There were candidates who were not in the government (eg Jon Cruddas) who could have easily got nominated. it would be healthy for the party at this stage for somebody who was not a minister to be in the debate. At every level of politics, candidates stand for election knowing they could not expect to win. (If you look at the US primary races for example). Its surprising to have to explain that to a Liberal Democrat!!

    Its a political judgement. The rules are thinking only about possible winners, but leadership contests have broader functions than that in a party. And those constructing them had in mind a 1980 type division in the party, where a candidate might have relatively little support in Parliament but broad support in the country (IDS’ Tory leadership demonstrated, to some extent, that tension, even when he was the second choice of MPs). That isn’t a plausible political danger now. And the electoral college itself (in which the Parliamentarians have similar weight to the membership) already addresses it.

    Which is why I agree a 5% threshold to get on the ballot would be more sensible when there is a vacancy, while a high but not unattainable threshold for a challenge to a sitting leader would be better.

    As to who would want impersonal nominations (and the multiple noms route would be a good way to do that), I expect that doesn’t work well for eg a left candidate who thinks everybody else in the party has betrayed the core values and principles of which they are the only holder. It could be fine for a candidate who wants their voice and perspective to be heard in the party contest and debate, while acknowledging that they do not have majority support.

  • paul barker 5th Jun '10 - 11:36am

    I agree with Sunder on this one, its the difference between collecting your 10 signatures to get on the ballot & persuading voters to vote LD, a big difference.

  • Niklas Smith: You epitomise the ridiculous nature of the argument which starts from a position of denial that the other 251 MP’s might just think that Diane Abbott would not make a very good leader. She has no claims to leadership on the basis of her track record, abilities etc. whatsoever so what is there to get excited about if no one nominates her?

  • Paul McKeown 5th Jun '10 - 12:25pm

    Labour’s problem is that its best leadership candidate hasn’t put his (possibly John Cruddas) or her (?) name forward. The three leading contenders are a unconvincing brattish shower, seriously tainted by the many desperately illiberal policies of the last government, an appalling economic record and no serious record of help for the underprivileged, just tokenism and tax & benefit sweeteners for the middle classes. John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are not serious candidates for the leadership, although interesting in terms of widening the debate. Andy Burnham doesn’t seem to be making any impact: despite desperately trying to find out, I just don’t know what he stands for, nor what he stands against. What we are seeing is a classic establishment stitch up and Niklas Smith’s observation is well made: Labour MPs will vote against the establishment candidates at peril of their parliamentary careers. Labour needs to screw up its courage, demand a genuine, open debate about direction and policy, and only then find a convincing leader to pursue its new goals. None of this “find our roots” cant from leadership candidates who mean to do the exact opposite.

  • @badger: You epitomise the ridiculous nature of the argument put forward here which seems to imply that if a candidate isn’t already a dead cert for inclusion then no one should nominate them. This is the prelude to the debate that will hopefully show who deserves the votes for leadership.

    Liberals are here saying that Labour MPs shouldn’t nominate the likes of Diane Abbott because she’s not already got the nominations therefore she doesn’t have the confidence of the party. If she can get the nominations then she will be in a position to fight for the leadership- if she can’t, then she won’t. We haven’t got to the position where you can make that judgement, and it’s none of your business if Labourr bloggers want to urge their parliamentary wing to nominate such candidates for whatever reason they desire, and it’s none of your business if Labour MPs want to nominate candidates in order to get them on the ballot and then later vote against them after the debate has been had.

    What I think is happening is that the Labour MPs left are trying to guess which candidate will have the most chance of getting on the ballot so they can put their nominations towards helping that candidate enter into the debate, rather than all jump on different candidates and split the “not New Labour” nominations.

    This question- “Shouldn’t Labour MPs just nominate the candidate they think is best for the job?”- is nonsense. Labour MPs should just nominate the candidate that they would like to see on the ballot, because that is what nominations are intended to do. They can vote for the one that they think is best for the job when it comes to voting for who should do the job.

  • Paul McKeown 5th Jun '10 - 12:42pm

    Further to what I have said, if there are Labour MPs who want to question direction and policy, then I would think that there best course of action would be to vote for John McDonnell or Diane Abbott, not for their leadership qualities, but simply to open the debate, so that at least the MilliMicroBollocks couldn’t continue with their heads up a*se stances. Genuine engagement with the concerns of the country would be refreshing, rather than empty soundbites, endlessly nuanced jibes against other candidates that only kremlinologists find remotely interesting and this unseemly struggle amongst Labour backbenchers for notice, preferment and tummy tickles in their new parliamentary faction.

  • OhNoNotAgain 5th Jun '10 - 12:45pm

    I don’t understand why it is so risable for a party to offer a wider choice of leader to its membership. The membership are often wisest about such matters as they are uninfluenced by the cliques that form in corridors of power. They have a feeling as to which candidate is authentic and has the widest appeal. If the party membership, for example, wishes to take the party towards a more left-leaning candidate and risk electability so be it. They may be right even though they weren’t with Paul Foot – but then the media bayed on about his donkey jacket. Dianne Abbot strikes me as being competent, capable of leadership and strong on the reasons Labour lost – in particular, in her response on immigration. She increased support in her own constituency whilst others lost seats so obviously has voter appeal. I think it would be great to have a black woman leading the Labour Party and I for one would love to see her name on the ballot paper! Shame I am not a member of the Labour Party – perhaps I should join.

  • For “donkey jacket ” and “paul” read “duffle coat” and Michael”?

  • OhNoNotAgain 5th Jun '10 - 1:43pm

    Tim – not much a party politico so just pick up on the vagaries of these things. But you knew what I meant.

  • Sunder Katwala 5th Jun '10 - 3:21pm

    On Stephen W’s argument about clones, etc. This does risk turning into an argument which doesn’t treat the candidates on their merits, or which argues that being a political adviser or former ministersis a disqualification from leadership.

    And the two candidates in the last LibDem leadership contest went to the same school, although I acknowledge that they went on to different Oxbridge universities on their way to the European parliament and then Westminster as MPs.

  • @Red I actually agree that people should not nominate only those who are dead certs to do well in the election. But there is a vast difference between that and nominating people purely because they happen to be black, female or from a particular wing of the party. It is a leadership contest and its not unreasonable for nominees to have some prospect of being able to lead the party effectively if elected. Both Alan Johnson and John Cruddas have been honest enough not to stand on the basis that they do not think they have the necessary qualities. Its a sad comment on democracy in the Labour Party that this desperation to nominate seems to spring from sectionsof the party who appear to think that this is the only way there will ever be any debate about the future direction of the party. You’re electing a leader not a dictator. Lack of debate is the members fault for accepting the concept of rule by a dictatorial elite for the last 13 years. Don’t blame MP’s.

  • Stephen W – the point has already been made about sticking your head above the parapet (with “public” nomination anyway). It is a case of trying to pick the winner to ensure you are on the right side of them when / if elected. And it is not to do with nomination thresholds – and it happens in our party as well!

    Badger – well, where were you when the Blairite New Labour changes were made to internal democracy. They do NOT get sufficient chances to discuss direction etc internally. Even the Tories are almost as democratic as NuLab. And surely, one of the key issues about their debate on direction would be about restoring more internal democracy?

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