2016 07 – How to Elect a Labour Leader

Rules for the election of a Labour Party leader

by David Morrison

The rules for electing a Labour Party leader are set out in the Labour Party Rule Book.  The latest version I can find is Rule Book 2015, which I know was changed at the 2015 Party Conference last autumn.

In Chapter 4 of it (entitled Elections of national officers of the Party and national committees), Section 2 says:

“2. Election of leader and deputy leader

“B. Nomination

“i.  In the case of a vacancy for leader or deputy leader, each nomination must be supported by 15 per cent of the Commons members of the PLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.

“ii. Where there is no vacancy, nominations may be sought by potential challengers each year prior to the annual session of Party conference. In this case any nomination must be supported by 20 per cent of the Commons members of the PLP. Nominations not attaining this threshold shall be null and void.”

This leaves no doubt that an incumbent can be challenged, but in that case the threshold for nomination is higher (20% of members of the PLP, rather than 15%).

Note, however, according to John Rentoul, the Labour Party rules were changed at the Labour Party conference last autumn to give Labour MEPs a role in the election of leader and deputy leader.  This was not instigated by Jeremy Corbyn – it seems to have been in the works before he was elected.

Rentoul wrote (The strange story of Labour’s leadership election rule changes, Independent, 18 November 2015):

“The leadership election rules were amended to include Members of the European Parliament in the nominating pool. The rules under which Corbyn’s election took place required candidates to be nominated by 15 per cent of Labour MPs, which is 35. The change has the effect of raising the threshold to 38 MPs and MEPs (there are 232 Labour MPs and 20 MEPs). And the threshold for a challenge to a sitting leader (20 per cent) has been raised from 47 MPs to 51 MPs and MEPs.”

So in future to be nominated:

  • where there is a vacancy, candidates need the support of 38 Labour MPs or MEPs, but
  • to challenge an incumbent, candidates need the support of 51 Labour MPs or MEPs

Note that a process of challenging Corbyn for the leadership cannot start until the party conference in the autumn.  Then, there would have to be a campaign lasting a couple of months, so a new leader may not be in place until early next year.  I presume a motivation behind this latest push against Corbyn is a desire to have a successor in place in time to face the new Conservative leader in the autumn.  For that to happen, Corbyn would have to follow Cameron and resign soon.

Question: does an incumbent have to be nominated by MPs/MEPs?  This is a very important question given Jeremy Corbyn’s difficulty last year in reaching the then threshold of 35 MPs and having to rely on nominations from MPs who went on to vote for other candidates.  It is by no means certain that he would be able to reach the threshold of 38 MPs or MEPs now if he had to.

However, the Labour Party has legal advice that an incumbent doesn’t need to be nominated by MPs/MEPs.  See Huffington Post article Jeremy Corbyn Automatically On Ballot In Leadership Challenge, Legal Advice Shows

Party’s own legal advice says rules only “reasonably” apply to challengers, not incumbent.

The legal advice (from Doughty Chambers) says

“I therefore conclude that an incumbent does not require formal nomination in order to be deemed re-elected (to the extent that occurs) in a year in which there is no challenge, and in a year where a contested election is triggered by a challenger under B(ii), the incumbent does not require to be nominated in order to appear on the ballot paper.  The incumbent is therefore automatically on the ballot paper unless s/he resigns (or otherwise becomes permanently unavailable)…”

However, according to the Huffington Post article, Corbyn’s opponents in the LP have contrary legal advice, so if they challenge for the leadership, the courts may be called upon to decide whether the rules require him to be nominated.

My conclusion is that Corbyn is safe unless the rules are interpreted (probably by the courts) as requiring him to be nominated and he can’t manage the required number of MPs or MEPs. I’m not in a position to judge whether he could muster sufficient support for that, if necessary. Maybe he could: I’ve been surprised at the apparent ease whereby he has been able to find replacements for his shadow cabinet.

I assume that, if he is a candidate, no challenger would be capable of beating him under the current leadership election system.