Next Labour Leader – History tells us to beware early signals

Next Labour Leader – History tells us to beware early signals

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 [1.2] 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 [25.0] 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.

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