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Labour leadership will be decided by Balls voters

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 07 August 2010

As the five Labour leadership contenders prepare for next month's ballot, Editor of Left Foot Forward Will Straw, writing for Channel 4 News, says the next Labour leader will be decided by the supporters of Ed Balls.

Labour leadership will be decided by Ed Balls' voters (Image: Getty)

The Labour leadership race has failed so far to ignite the imagination. A contest that featured two brothers, three team-mates from the 'Demon Eyes' football team, four former special advisers, and five Oxbridge graduates was always going to struggle to garner the sense of competition that captures column inches.

But the lengthy contest has ensured that, rather than a brief debate and another Labour coronation against the attention-sapping backdrop of a world cup finals, the race will have its own finale and photo finish in September.

Left Foot Forward's leadership model shows that while the contest will end with a Miliband as leader, it will be decided by Ed Balls.

Labour Party rules
The Labour party's electoral rules are so arcane to anyone with a social life that they require repeat explanation. The decision-making is split into three groups: MPs and MEPs; Labour party members; and the members of affiliated trade unions and socialist societies (like the Fabians).

Once all the first preferences are calibrated and added together, if no candidate achieves 50 per cent of the vote, the bottom candidate drops out and their second preferences are reallocated. This process continues until one candidate emerges with 50 per cent of the vote.

A winning contender has to appeal both to a core base within the party, but also ensure that they are sufficiently near the centre of gravity of the "electoral college" that they can cream off the spare votes of their less successful colleagues.

The leadership polls
Since the close of nominations, Left Foot Forward has been gathering information about the three constituent parts of the election. Over 95 per cent of Labour's MPs and MEPs have expressed a preference for one candidate or another.

Miliband Snr has 40 per cent of these nominations with brother Ed is some way behind on 29 per cent. Ed Balls and Andy Burnham both hover around 13 per cent while, despite garnering 33 nominations to get on the ballot paper, Diane Abbott has only 13 MPs (five per cent) who are committed to voting for her. Among party members there again appears to be a slight advantage for David Miliband.

A YouGov poll for The Sun last week gave the older brother a 38-32 per cent advantage. Diane Abbott was next on 13 per cent with Andy Burnham (10 per cent) and Ed Balls (seven per cent) taking up the rear.

Left Foot Forward's own analysis of a larger, but unweighted sample, gives a similar picture. We collated the actual votes cast at around 100 constituency Labour party nomination meetings and found David ahead by 37 per cent to 30 per cent.

Trade union support
The final section - trade union members - is hardest to gauge. While YouGov's poll again gave David Miliband a lead (of 34 per cent to 26 per cent) this failed to take into account the impact of trade union endorsements.

Ed Miliband has gained the support of the three biggest unions - Unite, Unison, and the GMB - while David Miliband only has the support of medium-sized Usdaw and the smaller Community.

In the 2007 deputy leadership election, a union endorsement had a profound impact. In a crowded field, Peter Hain picked up 60 per cent of the GMB's vote while Alan Johnson got 40 per cent of Unison's.

But turnout is likely to be much higher this time meaning that the influence will be diluted. Nonetheless, Left Foot Forward has attempted to allocate an "endorsement premium" equivalent to half the boost from 2007. The revised figures put Ed ahead on 33 per cent with David on 31 per cent, Diane Abbott on 15 per cent and Balls and Burnham both on 11 per cent.

What does it tell us?
Putting all this together gives David a slight lead on first preferences for the overall electoral college. We have him on 36 per cent, brother Ed on 31 per cent, and the other three candidates all on 11 per cent.

In keeping with their candidates’ energetic campaign, Ed Balls’ team are not giving up without a fight. They point out that at this stage in 2007, Hilary Benn (who ended up coming 4th) was well ahead in a similar YouGov poll of Labour party members while Harriet Harman, who won the race, was a distant 4th on 13 per cent.

They also claim that private canvassing shows how many Labour members are undecided. Nonetheless, the deficit in MPs and MEPs, who largely are decided, suggests they have a mountain to climb.

But while he won’t win, Ed Balls will be the kingmaker. The closeness of the race means that second preferences will be critical.

The YouGov poll gave Ed Miliband a 60:40 lead over his brother in the second preferences Labour members who favour one of the other three. Meanwhile, David a lead of 53:47 among similar trade union members. If this worked out in actual voting, both sections would be a dead heat.

This means the second preferences of MPs will be all-important. Early indications suggest that Andy Burnham’s supporters are more likely to follow the more Blairite Mili-D while Diane Abbott’s smaller group of endorsers will go for the more left-wing Mili-E.

Ed Balls supporters are keeping their cards closer to their chests. And little wonder, this race will come down to how they vote.

Will Straw is Editor of Left Foot Forward and a Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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