Starmer top contender as voting for Labour leadership about to begin | Politics

Voting is finally about to get under way for Labour’s leadership contest, although so far the exercise has failed to generate much excitement. That is partly down to the party’s overlong process – and to the fact with a post-war low of 202 MPs and four years to a general election, Labour’s real battle is for relevance.

It also may not help that Sir Keir Starmer is the firm frontrunner. A YouGov survey in mid-January had the shadow Brexit secretary winning by 63% over Rebecca Long-Bailey in a final round of voting, although that was conducted at a point when Jess Phillips (who polled third) was still in the race.

Constituency party nominations, tracked by CLP Nominations, take that further. Starmer won 374 of the 640 constituencies that made a nomination, a clear majority at 58.4%. Long-Bailey took 163, or 25.5% and Lisa Nandy 72, or 11.3%. The rest went to Emily Thornberry, who was eliminated for not reaching the 5% threshold.

Labour says that there are over 500,000 eligible voters, a mix of fully paid-up party members plus those who paid £25 to become registered supporters as well as affiliated union and socialist society members. In past elections, party members usually formed the largest group of those voting – 56% in the last contest in 2016.

Voting takes place on a preferential system. That could, in theory, allow Long-Bailey to threaten Starmer if he fails to win in the first round and if Nandy’s vote transfers to the shadow business secretary in bulk.

A Survation poll in January for the Labour List website had Long-Bailey winning with 51% over Starmer’s 49% in a final round, based on a survey of party members on Labour List’s database – although there is too much contradicting data to suggest this is a likely scenario.

Nandy has run a purposeful campaign focusing on where Labour lost to the Conservatives – in towns in the Midlands and the north of England – and demonstrated considerable skills as a communicator.

But the Wigan MP’s front-rank track record is limited, and her recognition amongst members is consequently low. Nor is voting Nandy an obvious answer to the question currently confronting Labour: do the voters want a continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership or a change of direction?

Nandy’s battle is to avoid coming third, and if a final round takes place with her eliminated, more of her votes are likely to transfer to Starmer. YouGov’s poll had Nandy supporters as dissatisfied with Corbyn’s leadership as Starmer supporters were, at 60% and 62% respectively.

Other evidence appears to confirm that after its shattering election defeat Labour is heading towards the centre – such as the victory of former Treasury minister Liam Byrne in the West Midlands mayoral selection race.

Labour’s membership is concentrated in the UK capital – where Starmer, a London MP, won 60% of the nominations – and other urban areas. Long-Bailey, whose campaign has promoted “progressive patriotism” and latterly “aspirational socialism”, has won in only in the north-west, where she represents Salford and Eccles.

Starmer’s campaign may not have been overly exciting, but at least it has been relatively error-free. Its most critical moment was its launch video, emphasising how, as a lawyer, he had advised poll tax protestors, miners, strikers at Wapping and had been involved in every major Labour cause for a generation.

Many Labour members will vote almost immediately, although the ballot period drags on from Monday 24 February to 2 April, with the result declared on 4 April. Some claim Starmer is reaching over 50% in phone bank returns; whatever the result, it will be compared to Tony Blair’s win in 1994 (57%) and Corbyn’s in 2015 (59.5%).

But whoever wins will face a more pressing problem – the popularity of the Conservatives. Boris Johnson’s party is sitting at 15-20 points ahead in most polls. That’s noticeably up from the 11.4 lead his party achieved in December’s 80-seat majority general election win.

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