Historical analysis shows he would stand a better chance than the other candidates of leading his party to victoryby Stephen Fisher and Andreas Murr / January 24, 2020 / Leave a comment
Labour is not so much engaged in a leadership race as a leadership triathlon. We’re just out of the first stage, where the hopefuls have to gather MPs to nominate them, and into the second, where they seek the backing of local parties and affiliated organisations such as trade unions. Only then do we move to the third and final stage, where the ballots are printed and sent out to members plus registered supporters and union members to cast their individual votes.
Both the rule book and the twin experiences of 2015 and 2016—the only leadership contests run under anything even vaguely resembling the current rules—suggest that what matters for clinching the leadership is the final vote. In neither of the last two contests did Jeremy Corbyn have anything other than a small minority of MPs behind him, and yet in both he walked the final straight with an outright majority.
But the country might well be more interested in who is going to be its prime minister than in the identity of yet another opposition leader. And if so, history suggests we might do well to focus not on the final furlong, but instead on the first stage of Labour’s triathlon—because MPs’ votes in party-leadership elections have previously been a good guide to subsequent general election outcomes.
Until the mid-1960s, the Conservatives didn’t bother with leadership elections at all—instead the leader somehow “emerged” from a mysterious process involving a mix of the “men in grey suits” and Buckingham Palace. Therefore it makes sense to start our analysis in 1966, the first general election for which there is clear data on how many MPs had previously backed the leader in both parties.
There have been 15 general elections since then. Of those 15, as many as 12 have been won by the leader who previously enjoyed the biggest winning margin among MPs in their own internal party leadership election. (With Labour on a losing streak just now, it comes as no surprise to learn that the only exceptions came in three elections where a Labour leader with a bigger lead among their own MPs was defeated by a Tory with a smaller edge within their own parliamentary tribe.)
Given that Boris Johnson won all the rounds of MP voting…