Tory papers, perhaps out to make trouble, are reporting this weekend that veteran left winger Jeremy Corbyn is ahead in private polling for the Labour leadership.

I don’t think it will happen but the speculation has been fuelled by the sort of thing that happened on the Victoria Derbyshire debate on BBC 2 this week. In front of an audience of potential, former and current Labour voters three of the four candidates faced a struggle to convince the audience that they were worth voting for. Time and again Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall set out their policy stances, but back came the same response that they weren’t inspiring people to vote Labour. Only Jeremy Corbyn got real gutsy rounds of applause when he called for a fight against austerity.

Sadly Liz Kendall seems to be trailing badly with her pro business stance and insistence on cutting the deficit. Andy Burnham is campaigning against the London based elite that he says has run the party for years, but he’s burdened by his past record on letting private firms into the health service. Yvette Cooper is banking on saying little, relying on her Cabinet experience as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

The problem for these three is that they are swimming against a left wing tide in the party that we have not seen since Michael Foot was elected leader in 1980. It was not a rational response to the election of Margaret Thatcher then, and is unlikely to be the right response to Cameron’s victory now. However the activists in the party have a right to express their views and elect who they want. Corbyn is catching that mood and the other three candidates are struggling with their various policy nuances, but with the basic belief that the deficit must be reduced and the Tories have caught the public mood on benefits.

Harriet Harman has hardly put a foot wrong in her long career. She has always kept in touch with the party mood and been popular with her commitment to women. It was therefore quite startling that at the very end of her time in front line politics she should have advocated a humiliating cave in to the Tories welfare reforms.

It posed one of the most difficult questions of our time, what is Labour for? Corbyn has his answer, fight austerity, support large families and ban nuclear weapons. The other three candidates have more complicated answers because they believe that is where Labour has to be to win back middle England.

Middle England, the elusive prize for Labour. What would they feel about Jeremy Corbyn leading the Labour Party? They would be more comfortable with a telegenic Burnham or perhaps a woman leading the party for the first time in Kendall or Cooper.

Meanwhile the Tories drive support to Corbyn with their latest proposals on strike ballots and having to opt into levy payments to the Labour Party. That goes down well in Middle and South East England where the tube strike wrecked havoc with people’s lives last week. But it angers grass roots Labour who feel they want to lash out, perhaps elect Corbyn and to hell with the consequences.




This isn’t a reference to the FA Cup Final replay of that year and Ricky Villa’s brilliant goal, but to a much rougher match held at Wembley four months before.


As we look forward to this weekend’s special Labour Party conference on rule changes, my mind goes back to January 1981, the last time the party reformed its leadership election structure.


After its defeat in 1979 the party had descended into civil war between left and right wing factions. The left were determined to end the exclusive right of Labour MPs to elect the leader. This was in spite of the fact that two months earlier left winger Michael Foot had been chosen as the party’s new standard bearer.


We reporters arrived at Wembley to a tension filled auditorium. The stakes had been raised dramatically higher by the threat of four senior former Labour cabinet ministers to form a new party if the exclusive right of Labour MPs to elect the leader was removed.


Undeterred the conference voted to introduce a new system whereby the unions, constituency parties and MPs would each have a third share in electing the leader.

The “Gang of Four”, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and David Owen formed the Social Democratic Party and Labour was out of office until 1997 when Tony Blair led it back to power. He reformed the famous Clause Four statement of strong socialist principles but never touched the leadership voting system.


So it was that Ed Miliband narrowly beat his brother by winning the union part of the electoral college even though most MPs and party activists voted for David Miliband.




Things couldn’t be more different this weekend as Labour is set to reform their leadership election method after 33 years. It’s come a long way since last summer when the Tories goaded Ed Miliband into proposing the change after allegations of Unite The Union shenanigans in the selection of a parliamentary candidate in Falkirk.


It looked for a while that Unite’s leader Len McCluskey would resist the reforms aimed at defusing Tory criticisms that the party was too close to the unions. But all the signs are that Saturday’s conference will rubber stamp the changes so we’d better look briefly at what they are.


The electoral college will be abolished. MPs will choose the short-list, but will then only have one vote each along with party members and affiliated supporters (see below) in choosing the next leader.


In future each trade union member will have actively to agree to a levy going to the Labour Party. Since 1946 the levy has been automatically deducted unless the member objected. Ed Miliband is taking a big financial risk with this proposal. He hopes trade unionists will take the next step by becoming affiliated supporters. He wants them to take an active interest in the party. They will get a vote in leadership elections but not in the choice of parliamentary candidates. That right will be retained by full party members.


Conservative critics do not believe their fox has been shot because the unions will retain their block vote at party conference and on the ruling National Executive Committee. This may be the price Miliband has paid for securing union agreement for the changes.


But Tories need to be careful in their criticism of who influences Labour policy. Big business continues to bankroll the Conservatives and people are still asking why plans for minimum priced alcohol and plain packaged cigarettes were withdrawn. Tory party membership is down to 100,000 partly because their activists have virtually no say in making policy.


All parties are struggling with plummeting party membership. Miliband’s attempt to get people to associate with the Labour Party if they won’t actually join might help a bit but it seems to acknowledge that he’s not inspiring people very much.


That’s partly his fault and partly the fact that there is very little to choose between the three main parties. A far cry from the Margaret Thatcher v Michael Foot General Election that followed two years after that memorable conference at Wembley.