I’m still in a bit of a muddle about the deputy leadership election, for a number of reasons.
The stakes are lower. While getting the wrong leader can be a complete and utter disaster, arguably only one deputy leadership election (1981, Healey v Benn) has made much of a difference to the wider political weather.
None of the current deputy leadership candidates seem beyond the pale for many of their party colleagues, and given that there will be a formidable task of restoring morale and bringing people together, that is a good thing. While there are ideological differences between them, it all seems manageable.
Another problem is that the choice is entangled with what one expects to happen in the leadership election and what one wants from the leadership ticket as a whole, both ideologically and in terms of representation. Should I, for instance, let the general view that Jeremy Corbyn is going to be leader affect my vote for deputy, or should I choose the person I feel would be most complementary to Yvette Cooper? I would feel uncomfortable with an all-male leadership team, so should I favour a woman to balance up Corbyn, or hold out the hope that Cooper can win?
I have tried to think about criteria on which one can rule out or favour the candidates. As an elections buff, I did have a look at the constituency results for all the contenders. They all had strong results in their own constituencies in 2015, sometimes (Eagle and Creasy) spectacular swings topping 8 per cent. They all posted swings at least twice the English average, which while regional and demographic trends tend to determine these matters, at least suggests that they are effective campaigners who are liked by their local constituents and activists, and the local parties also have strong records in council elections.
Ideological balance? If I were certain that Corbyn would lose, there would be an argument for supporting Angela Eagle as the most left wing among the deputy candidates. A non-Corbyn leader would benefit from having a left person onside, who could build bridges and work with the positive energies of the surge in membership and registered support, and with the Corbyn activists. But conversely, if Corbyn is going to win there needs to be some balance at the centre. I think, therefore, that Eagle has to be my fifth preference in the circumstances.
It is an astonishing fact that Labour has never had a Leader or Deputy Leader representing a constituency in the south of England outside London. This is an effect, but surely also a cause, of Labour’s history of weakness in the south – the party tends to lose most of its seats in the region in election defeats, so southern MPs do not build seniority unless they move to a safer seat elsewhere, as Michael Foot did in 1960 following two constituency defeats in Plymouth. In the history of the party, there have only been three deputy leadership contenders from the south (including the odd couple of Shirley Williams in 1976 and Tony Benn in 1981) and only Benn (1976) has stood for party leader. Ben Bradshaw therefore brings something important to the table; representing a part of the country where Labour needs to expand its support, rather than an existing stronghold. Exeter only voted Labour once before 1997 (in 1966) but it is now a seat that returns decent-sized majorities for Bradshaw. Perhaps we could learn something from that.
I am also strongly in favour of constitutional and electoral reform. Ben Bradshaw is also a committed reformer of many years’ standing, and as deputy I am sure would ensure that Labour needs to face up to the inadequate way that we are governed; the future of politics is likely to involve pluralism and broad fronts and I like Bradshaw’s lack of sectarianism. He’s a good European and internationalist. Caroline Flint, although representing Don Valley, took an active interest in the politics of the south in the previous parliament and would be a good advocate; but she is also the only one of the five to have voted No in the AV referendum in 2011. I’m fairly convinced that I’m going to give Ben Bradshaw my first preference alongside my Cooper vote in the leadership election.
However, that is far from the end of the story, and realistically one has to think properly about the lower preferences; Ben may surprise us all, but he is not perceived as one of the front-runners in the pack of five. So second and third preferences may well be decisive, and here is the difficulty. I have had immense difficulty in trying to make up my mind between Stella Creasy and Tom Watson.
Creasy is clearly a formidable campaigner, both in her Walthamstow constituency and on the national stage. Very few first term opposition backbenchers have ever achieved as much as she did in 2010-15 with her campaign against ‘legal loan sharks’. She is highly intelligent, bubbling with ideas, and somehow very modern – a politician of the social media and networked age. She is using the contest itself as an organising and training opportunity for the party, an admirable statement of her commitment to making the party more of a movement. It does not bother me that she is said to be a bit aloof from Westminster, but I do wonder how a Corbyn-Creasy ticket would manage to work with a disgruntled and isolated Parliamentary Party.
Tom Watson is the candidate I know best, and I like and admire him. Like Creasy, he has been a highly effective backbencher and his work on press misconduct and historic child sex abuse has shown he does not shy away from confronting powerful interests and difficult issues. As well as this campaigning, Watson is also intellectually curious to a degree that is most unusual in a serving politician; it is usually well worth reading an article he flags up on Twitter or Facebook, even if the subject sounds unpropitious. He is interested in some of the longer term issues of technology and the increasingly strong links between the UK and China. In a conversation with Tom, you will tend to learn something, and, attractively for a politician, he will learn something from you as well. He has not been afraid to change his mind and explain why, notably on my pet subject of electoral reform (of course, it helps that he came over to my side of the argument). Watson knows the Labour movement well, including some of its murkier corners, and I think a bit of expertise in Defence Against the Dark Arts might be a useful quality in the next deputy leader. My only real reservations are that Tom Watson is probably too interesting a person for the rather dull job of deputy leader of the Labour Party, and that a Corbyn-Watson leadership would consist of two white blokes. Again.
At the moment, therefore, I’m intending to give my second preference – which I expect to be the decisive vote – to Watson. But my Creasy third preference is cast in a very positive spirit too, and I can’t completely rule out the possibility of changing my mind (again) and reshuffling the order of preferences. I will listen to arguments if people want to make them. While the leadership contest is just an embarrassment, the deputy leadership contest is an embarrassment of riches.